✱ It's Their Story

This is my third post in the ArchiTalks (search #architalks on twitter) series where a bunch of internet friends in the online architecture world write an article and post about the same topic on the same day. We most definitely don’t write about the same things however. We’re given a topic capable of a wide range of interpretation which gives a lot of variation in the posts by all who are participating. Bob Borson over at Life of an Architect started this whole thing and it seems to be going well, so we're continuing to do it.

At the end of this page I'll have links to the other articles posted today by my friends so you can read what they have to say about the topic.

Today’s topic: Architectural Storytelling

Perhaps one of the best experiences in architecture that I've had in the last couple of years was working with a new client on a rather small job as compared to some of the other work we do around here. It was one of my goals to create something for them but also by them because I wanted them to be able to use the project to spread their story. There is no better way for this to happen organically than to make them the authors of it.

It was our job to re-skin a portion of their building for safety reasons. Anyone who works in architecture knows that this could have gone down a thousand different paths to an eventual solution and one of those outcomes could have easily been to make it look just like it already did. In fact, this is what they were expecting. But this was a huge opportunity for their enterprise. They just didn't know it.

I do believe that architecture can tell a story, and that’s how I have chosen to write about this topic. But I don’t think it usually tells the same story to everyone. In fact, this is why I’m writing about this specific project. Much like a song or a work of art, different people interpret the lyrics, image, sculpture, etc. in different ways. I know that I have my own story of the first time I visited a great work of architecture, and I also know that it’s probably different than yours. One thing I like about architecture is how permanent it is. As I go back and revisit them, they are the same but my internal story about it changes over time because I change over time. I see it in new ways each time – probably because the light is different that day, my head is in a different place, or because I want to see new things about it.

It’s been my experience that if you want your project to have a chance at having a singular story to tell (and this isn't always the goal, I know), it’s best to collaborate with the client as much as possible because they will become the ambassador of the story they write. The way I approached our collaboration was to ask a series of questions to help them think outside of the box and have an opportunity to go beyond their preconceived ideas. So I asked:

  • What can you tell me about your cimpany that I won’t find in your marketing materials or website?
  • What are you working on that you don’t talk about but is something you’d like the world around you to know about?
  • Who are you? What’s your identity? What do you want your outward appearance to express to your neighbors? What story do you want to tell?

They were a little taken aback after our discovery session. They never expected to be put on the spot and have to answer seemingly unrelated questions about the task at hand, but they talked about their passions and endeavors nonetheless. I thanked them, told them I’d meet with them in a couple of weeks and hit the drawing board. They were intrigued and excited! A little mystery makes for a great next meeting… as long as you can deliver.

Here’s a little info about the project: The client is in the transportation industry and the building is their corporate office. It's 6 stories tall and was originally built in the 1960’s. It unfortunately had prominent bank logos at the top on all four sides. Our client occupies all of the floors except for the bottom one where the bank is located. There were some travertine marble panels on the north and south sides that were crumbling due to old age and had to be removed and replaced. They take pride in their facilities and want to make sure that they make a nice statement to their surrounding community through the aesthetics of their building.

My questions lead me to finding out that they were working very hard on sustainable electric transportation, wanted sustainable facilities, they had a huge identity problem because of the logos on their building, and no one in the community knew they were there because they thought it was a bank. They wanted and needed to tell a different story but they never thought their building was going to be a way to do it. It was my job to show them what was possible.

After coming up with four different ideas, I had the opportunity to present them to the owner. I first talked about how after our first meeting I was really impressed with all of the things they had told me, and that before that day I had no idea what they did. I illustrated their identity problem, which became obvious because once I asked them how they gave directions to their building. It turns out that they would have people look for the bank. I then proceeded to show them some ideas that reinforced the story they had begun to tell me. First, I showed them a bunch of words that I thought represented their endeavor: movement, transportation, connection, sustainability, traffic, and innovation. I asked if I was on the right track, and they responded with a resounding yes. I then showed them several images of how that could be translated into a physical expression on their building and tell that story to their community.

The four schemes were well received, and I was then told that they would have never conceived of any of that on their own. Remember, they were just going to replace the facade of the building with something just like it. This was a huge departure, and in fact it was going to cost more than they had originally thought. The beauty of going through this process with them was that they wanted to tell that story to their community and were easily able to justify the additional cost to accomplish what they previously weren't able to: have an identity within their community and display an outward expression of who they really are. But there was still a chance that they wouldn't choose any of them and just redo what they already had.

I was surprised (in a good way!). The scheme they chose in the end is a perfect abstract representation of them - movement, sustainable, and innovative. It’s important that it’s abstract because while being open to interpretation it also begs a question; it doesn't spell it all out. Just as planned, I've been told visitors to the building ask what the new design is all about. The architecture has created an opening for the owner to tell their story and what it all means. They get to have conversations that communicate their pride in their facility and what they are doing in their community. They get to talk about how this project has accomplished goals they couldn't have with the old travertine. They have a new identity and outward expression for everyone to see, and they have deeper meaning behind it to talk about with anyone interested. We created something worth talking about.

All of this came out of three questions they never saw coming, all designed to enable them to tell their story. Now everyone that visits and hears the story becomes part of the in-crowd, and has the ability to tell the story to someone else. It will grow organically over time. Every time I drive by the building I fondly remember the process we all went through together. If this isn't a great example of architectural storytelling, I don’t know what is.

Click here to see other posts on Twitter using the hashtag #ArchiTalks.


Cormac Phalen - Archispeak Podcast
The Generational Story

Andrew Hawkins - Hawkins Architecture
Architectural Story Books

Jeremiah Russell - r | one studio architecture
Architectural Storytelling - #ArchiTalks

Jes Stafford – Modus Operandi Design
This is Exciting - It All Comes Together

Nicholas Renard – Cote Renard Architecture
The Story of a Listener

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture
The Secret Ingredient To Convincing Anyone To Do (Almost) Anything

Jeff Echols - Architect of the Internet
Architects Can Improve their Marketing by Incorporating Storytelling

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect
Architectural Storytelling - It's My Thing

Matthew Stanfield - Field 9 Architecture
Stories in Architecture

Marica McKeel - Studio MM
Take the Time to Tell Your Story.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect
Architecture as storytelling

Mark R. LePage - Entrepreneur Architect
AE048: Success Through Storytelling with Bob Fisher of Design Intelligence

Lora Teagarden - L2 Design, LLC
Architectural Storytelling: The Legacy of Design

Collier Ward - Thousand Story Studio
Architecture and Storytelling are Forever Linked