Storytelling for Architects

Storytelling for Architects

Why do architects need storytellers? This may seem random, but let’s start with one of those “Shot on the iPhone 6” posters—that one with the surfer sitting next to his little red Datsun with the ocean before him: it takes me to some eternal lazy weekend, or better yet, that childhood camping trip to Leo Carrillo with those sinewy long-haired boys and the smell of BBQ. Snap, share, save. That’s all I need. And the iPhone 6 is so seamless and beautiful, timeless like this moment before the sea. Someone at Apple knows you need to strike hard at the human condition, getting at memory and desire. Render a simple but strong experience or feeling, drawn from a complex and rich underlay, and we’re hooked. The need for this kind of storytelling in architecture is no different, only the stakes are so much higher. Place is about as personal and fundamental to the human condition as it gets; we actually need it, and we do things better as individuals and a collective when it is done well. People—those who take the financial risk in hiring us, those who will inhabit the building, and the community that will be impacted by its presence on the street—need to know that we “get it.” And “it” is usually some mesh of identity, place, culture, aspiration, and financial or time constraints. Ferreting out the “it” and translating it into a resonant human experience requires story.

How have the stories that architects tell changed in the last few years?

Wider use of social media and blogs has made it much easier for architects to share their stories, illuminating their culture and predilections and tying them to a larger social or intellectual discourse. This is good on so many levels—connecting with your network, amplifying your brand, and recruiting. A quick read of Lake Flato’s blog, for instance, tells me that they’re a tight community full of personality and that their sustainability story is often about a “thermal break.” There’s an apparent level of specificity and craft, which would have otherwise stayed in people’s heads or remained buried in design narratives deep in the hard drive. Teasing out these kind of stories that already exist within the studio and sharing them—increasingly within our own publishing platforms—is the job of the storyteller.

In terms of life at WRNS, storytelling hasn’t changed much. It’s in our DNA. During my first interview more than 10 years ago, one of our founding partners, Sam Nunes, asked me if I was more Hemingway or Faulkner (my response was direct and declarative, if not entirely true, as it seemed to be a hinge moment). There’s always some book making its rounds through the office (Mark SloukaJennifer Egan, and Maria Semple, we seriously love you!). Every project is its own novella or sweeping epic, and the leaders here get that. 

So when the workplace market—with its focus on recruiting and the integration of identity with place—entered the scene in a big way for us about five years back, we were primed for it. There’s this super deep level of investigation and design/narrative risk-taking involved in the competition for workplace clients (we work with Adobe, Airbnb, Dolby, Microsoft, and Intuit), and we genuinely have a good time with it. This kind of brand-focused storytelling is about the seemingly simple questions we’ve always been asking, namely: who are you and how will this new place make life better for both you and the broader community? 

What stories interest clients and users of the buildings?

Out of curiosity, I sent this question to three architects: a designer, a project manager, and a business development-minded person. The project manager got back to me right away with, “any story that involves remaining on budget….and puppies.” Which gets at: the stories that interest clients and building occupants are completely tied to their various roles during delivery and what they do inside of the building once it’s open. Understanding the overall aesthetic or urban design story is one thing, and almost everyone cares about it; getting into the details (the skin prototyping and the problem solving or the experience of sequence) is quite another. 

The director of capital programs at a university might be all about how successful her first design/build-meets-lean construction project worked out. For the architect who prototyped the skin in his own garage, the story might be about innovative use of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete. The head of dining at a fancy tech firm might care the most about circulation. Sometimes these super-specific stories are the most important ones; sometimes they coalesce into a big whopper of a narrative. Our job as storytellers is to get in there and listen for that thing that’s going to show we were thinking on our feet, or strategically, or being artistic, or whatever mattered for that specific project. This quest is not easy, but it’s fun when you really connect with the people who have dedicated serious chunks of their lives to making a new place that impacts a great amount of people.

Anything else?

I thought I’d end this on a personal note, as these questions have spurred a bit of an existential mind-wander.

During that same Faulkner vs. Hemingway interview over ten years ago, interviewing for the position that has led me to now, I was talking about this and that, blah blah blah, trying to win over the panel, when my future boss cut me off, narrowed his eyes and asked, rather abrasively: “Why do you care?”

I was taken aback. The question felt personal for some reason. I thought of my childhood home, a little Craftsman-style house with newspaper insulation that was in a constant state of renovation. The walls gave off splinters and pulled in a cold draft. There was a large-scale fisherman with a six-pack in a canoe etched into the wall in our stairwell. At some point in my dad’s tenure as a tile man, he lay the softest green ceramics that you ever walked on. They grew warm in the sunlight. Multipaned windows looked out on a lake that flooded, sank with drought, stank like dead fish, and generally was the best thing ever. That place is my dream world, my spatial framework for safety, love, comfort, warmth, hope, and joy.
I don’t remember exactly what came out of my mouth. I do remember panicking and blurting out something like “good places make me feel good.” Then I reiterated that I was more Hemingway than Faulkner. Sam smiled, and I’ve been writing stories for WRNS ever since.

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