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Fairy Tales: Exploration of Architectural Formatting

I recently received my copy of Fairy Tales: When Architecture Tells a Story, the product of "the world's first architectural storytelling competition, organized by Blank Space in 2013-14." The book contains 24 entries from the competition, forming a collection of "fairy tales". The organizers "gave no indications of typology, scope, location, or budget. No constraints or requirements besides one: write an architecture fairy tale, and design it too."

The charge was to design and present an architecture through narrative. I was immediately drawn to the competition because of its implications for developing new experimental design methods. The competition requires each entrant to generate an architectural method, the only stipulation being that the final format must be a fairy tale. In heuretic terms, this is an assignment that specifies one component of the CATTt Generator - the [t]ale or [t]ail - and leaves the other components relatively open to variation.

While you can read more on the CATTt Generator on previous posts, we will briefly explain the generator to better explore each of the components as implicated in the Fairy Tales competition. The CATTt Generator was developed by Greg Ulmer from analysis of historic treatises on method to find commonalities amongst diverse examples of method invention. Working with examples ranging from Plato's presentation of the dialectical method in the Phaedrus, Descartes' Discours de la méthode presenting his critical method, and Andre Breton's Surrealist Manifesto on the surrealist method, Ulmer identified 5 common components to method formation in a chosen field:

  • [C]ontrast: a known discourse or method in the inventor's field, and a desired divergence from it. The inventor must begin by moving away from an undesirable example whose features provide an inventory of components made valuable through determining their exterior or opposite.

  • [A]nalogy: a discourse or method from some other field that offers a model for a successful way of working.

  • [T]heory: a rigorously developed methodology from the creator’s working discipline used primarily to offer weight and substance to the new creation. ‘[T]he theorist generates a new theory based on the authority of another theory whose argument is accepted as a literal rather than a figurative analogy’.

  • [T]arget: the intended audience. The inventor must have an intended area of application that the new method will address, frequently identifiable in terms of the needs of an institution that desired the new method.

  • [t]ale/[t]ail: a final presentation format. The tale/tail is there to remind the inventor ‘that the invention, the new method, must itself be represented in some form or genre.’ (Ulmer 1994, 8-15)

Through the Fairy Tales competition, Blank Space instigated method experiments by requiring that designs be submitted in a format that is very unusual in architecture: the narrative tale. The narrative tale requirement forced designers to develop a new way of communicating with their audience that necessitated some corresponding changes in design conventions, inducing a new way of working and thinking about the design process and its end goals. We can pinpoint these pressures against design convention that the fairy tale format creates by considering the implications it presents to each CATTt component. The narrative tale format: [C]ontrasts with all conventional architecture documents: plans, sections, diagrams and renderings won't be enough to ensure that a narrative is properly conveyed, so the presentation media would have to be reconsidered. Luckily, the fairy tale format already inspires a large variety of [A]nalogical material to choose from, providing ideas to amalgamate a media strategy, providing that the designer remembers that the [T]heory and [T]arget of their method will be architecture: the architectural content of their entry must be apparent to their audience, namely architects, and more specifically the organizers and judges of the competition.

The instigation was successful: Fairy Tales contains a satisfying variety of propositions for what an architectural tale might be, bristling with possibilities for the communication of architectural ideas.


  • Ulmer, G. 1994. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

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