Architecture of Stories

Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.



Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.
Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.

Form follows function – that has been misunderstood.
Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.

-Frank Lloyd Wright


My book Liliane’s Balcony is set at and structurally inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I love thinking architecturally about fiction, and writing this book gave me a chance to take that interest to the next level.

Here then are some musings about literature and architecture, stories and spaces.

First, here is a link to an amazing project: LabLitArch is a program that is all about literary architecture. A bit about it:

How many times have we paused while reading a book and had the feeling that we were inside a structure built, knowingly or unknowingly, by the writer? Not simply the ability to picture in our minds the locations or architectural settings described in the text, but rather the sense of being immersed in a space, a literary space, designed by someone else.

Architectural metaphors are often used in the discussion of literature, as in “the architecture of a novel”. In any real architectural project, there are ideas that need to be designed and conveyed, a supporting structure, sequences of spaces, surprises and suspensions, hierarchies of space and function, and so on. In creative writing, many of the challenges seem to be similar. For example, how should different strands of narrative be intertwined? How can chronology be rearranged in a plot sequence? How is tension expressed? What do certain narrative sequences and omissions convey or mean? How do characters connect?



The entrance to a building, of course, is the point of entry, the space of transition from outside to inside. As we step through, we get the first glimpse of what is inside. Entrance doors are often prominently featured in the front of a house, often raised up by a step, and located at the end of a clear sidewalk path, made to look larger by a frame of windows and landscaping. Frank Lloyd Wright famously hid his entrances on sides of buildings or behind walls, and visitors have to find the “path of discovery” to lead them to the house. The effect was to deemphasize the transitional space in order to heighten the interior experience of arriving in an open room.

The entrance to Fallingwater.


A writer might conceive of her story’s beginning in a more traditional fashion, calling attention to the drama of the entry; or she might compose a more labyrinthine path. But in either case, the purpose of the entrance – to a story, to a house – is to entrance. To put the reader into a trance, to carry the reader away “with delight, wonder, or rapture.” (Merriam-Webster)



FACADES is an ongoing series of work by French photographer Zacharie Gaudrillot-Roy that imagines a world where facades have been completely isolated from buildings. He shares of the project: “The façade is the first thing we see, it’s the surface of a building. It can be impressive, superficial or safe. Just like during a wandering through a foreign city, I walk through the streets with these questions: what will happen if we stick to that first vision? If the daily life of “The Other” was only a scenery? This series thus offers a vision of an unknown world that would only be a picture, without intimate space, with looks as the only refuge.” Image from Colossal




Robert Boswell quoting Stephen Gould in the Half-Known World: “‘The great central dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice presents in its mosaic design a detailed iconography expressing the mainstays of Christian faith. Three circles of figures radiate out from a central image of Christ….Each circle is divided into quadrants…[and]each quandrant meets one of the four spandrels in the arches below the dome. Spandrels are necessary architectural by-products of mounting a dome on rounded arches.'”

In fiction, Boswell says: “[S]pandrels are often…the key to creating an elaborate, harmonious, and purposeful story. While the writer must toil away on the primary structures (those literary arches), in the process she inevitably creates spandrels (by-products), and very often these spandrels come to guide and shape the story, and give the writer the opportunity to create a beautiful and meaningful whole.”



Robert Olen Butler interview Bookslut: “Whenever we feel like fiction is going to vanish because of the movies, or television, or video games, or whatever, we need to remember that this is the intensely important, absolutely fundamental aspect of human experience that only this art form can get at. And indeed, the voices that are in my books — and I do a lot of first-person voices — they’re not the first-person voices that you’d hear sitting across a table in a restaurant or next to somebody on a Greyhound bus. Or even lying under the covers in the dark of night in bed with the person. Those voices are accessible in other art form. No, this is the inner voice. It’s the voice of the sensibility of the soul, if you will. And it’s the dream voice. So that’s not going to be doable in film, or on stage, or, needless to say, in video games. This voice is only heard in the rolling out of a narrative text.”

Interior of Fallingwater.


John Gardner, The Art of Fiction p. 40-41: “Theme is what, at its deepest level, the story is about; it is the philosophical and emotional principle by which the writer selects and organizes his materials. Real literary artists are always conscious of their theme; but this does not assure good writing…Theme is like the floors and structural supports in a fine old mansion, indispensible but not, as a general rule, what takes the reader’s breath away. More often than not, theme, or meaning, is the statement the architecture and décor made about the inhabitants…In the final analysis, what counts is not the philosophy of the writer but the fortunes of the characters, or their principles of generosity or stubborn honest or stinginess or cowardice help them or hurt them in specific situations. What counts is the characters’ story.”


Edith Wharton: “Novels, like houses, should have a firm outline, a sound structure and a quality of inevitableness.”

Virginia Woolf, from the 1928 Introduction to the Modern Library’s edition of Mrs Dalloway, in response to critiques of the novel’s innovative form: “The author, it was said, dissatisfied with the form of fiction then in vogue, was determined to beg, borrow, steal or even create another of her own. … Dissatisfied the writer may have been; but her dissatisfaction was primarily with nature for giving an idea, without providing a house for it to live in. The novelists of the preceding generation had done little – after all why should they? – to help. The novel was the obvious lodging, but the novel it seemed was built on the wrong plan. Thus rebuked the idea started as the oyster starts or the snail to secrete a house for itself.”


Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: “…the house image would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” (xxxvi)
“…there is ground for taking the house as a tool for analysis of the human soul.” (xxxvii)
“For our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” (4)

“Through poems, perhaps more than through recollections, we touch the ultimate poetic depth of the space of the house. This being the case, if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in space. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depth. Daydreaming…derives direct pleasure from its own being…. Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream.” (6)

“The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming….The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone, furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work, could succeed in achieving completely. If we give their function of shelter for dreams to all of these places of retreat, we may say…that there exists for each one of us an oneiric house, a house of dream-memory, that is lost in the shadow of a beyond of the real past.” (15)


Robert Olen Butler in his book From Where You Dream: “Please get out of the habit of saying you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.”


Andre Breton in Manifestoes of Surrealism: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak…. A story is told according to which Saint-Pol-Roux, in times gone by, used to have a notice posted on the door of his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, which read: THE POET IS WORKING.” “Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.” (14)


John Gardner in The Art of the Novelist: “Good fiction sets off…a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind…. [A]n aesthetically successful story will contain a sense of life’s strangeness.” (39-40)


Catherine Brady in Story Logic p. 50-51: “A well-made fiction differs greatly from a dream. …Yet just as in a dream, meaning depends as much on form as on content. …Dreams and fiction are open to multiple interpretations, generating not an either/or statement but an either/and statement. …Usually only the dreamer can guess at the fragmentary meaning of a dream, but a fiction writer tries to define a range of interpretation for many readers.”


From Short Intro to Jung: “To Jung, the house was an image of the psyche. The room on the upper floor represented his conscious personality. The ground floor stood for the first level of the unconscious, which he was to call the personal unconscious, while in the deepest level of all he reached the collective unconscious. There he discovered the world of the primitive man within himself.” (47)


We move through a story via the space of the page. In most literary works, the reading happens from left to right, one page after the next, in order. (Then there’s Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters, and Choose Your Own Adventures.) But for the most part, the writer moves the reader through narrative page space via the compression and expansion and movement through time: past, present, future, gaps.

This from Shawn Vestal in BLOOM:

“Inventing a story always requires inventing two stories: the story as told and the “real” one, in its chronological, linear procession. These stories shadow each other in the way of all art and subject: it is the telling, the style, and the creative choices that are ultimately more important than the events themselves. Still, the linear story is always there, somewhere. The most radically experimental work gains energy from tugging on its chronological tether, and the most prosaic storytelling is merely faithful to it. The gap between the story’s events and the telling—omissions, limitations, manipulations of time, voice, the metaphorical landscape—comes to feel, at least to me, like more than just a crucial element of literature. It feels like the essence of what literature is.”

In architecture, we move through literal spaces via doorways and hallways, but we also experience a place with a past and a future, a place that shows the effects of time, or is even an assemblage of architectural styles and time periods layered one on the other. Like the Reichstag in Berlin:



Ellen Eve Frank on Henry James: “Reading becomes point-of-viewing, our placing of self that we might see. James asks that we regard language as grounded . The analogy between James’s reading process and that process proposed by architectural theorists is far from incidental. James’s Notebooks and travel literature document his impressive knowledge not only of architectural monuments, but also of architectural theory and theorists, among whom Ruskin is an acknowledged favorite.The prefaces reproduce, in different literary form, James’s understanding of the complex responses individuals were supposed to have to physical and literary architecture.”


The following assignment was designed for students in the Miami University graduate sprint class, April 2014. The topic: literary architecture.

Your Commission

Write a story inspired in both form and content by a significant architectural structure.

The story’s content should correspond to an historical fact or anecdote related to the building’s site, commission, construction, or use.

The story’s form – its appearance on the page, its use of language, its arrangement of information, its movement through time, etc. – should be informed by the building’s form – its visual appearance, its design and layout, its use of space and light, its materials, its setting, etc.

Your Budget: 1000 words


Tuesday: choose and research building; pitch idea to class

Wednesday: bring two possible “entrances”/beginnings (200 words each)

Thursday: complete story

List of some possible choices


RESULTS! Links to story excerpts

Michael Stoneberg, “No One Belongs Here Less Than You”
Curtis Dickerson, “Dead Art/Not Relevant”

Fallingwater videos
Documentary preview
3-D Animation

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