On Stories: Architecture and Identity
ark n In an interview in the January 1964 edition of Playboy magazine, Vladimir Nabokov was asked about his identity. He replied, “I am an American writer, born in Russia and educated in England, where I studied French literature, before spending fifteen years in Germany.” It is a playful response to our shared condition within a truly global world. As the question of “where one is from” becomes more and more complicated to answer, so too does the identity of architecture. It is not unusual today for a project in Dubai, for example, to be designed by an architect born in Iraq, trained in London and now teaching in Vienna. Typically, such a building is designed by one office, while yet another carries out working drawings and construction administration. The program of a national pavilion locates this issue squarely in architectural terms. The Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale (1958-1962), designed by Sverre Fehn to represent Sweden, Finland, and Norway, is a project that one can presume deals in some way with the issue of a Nordic identity. Though much has been written about the pavilion and the Pritzker Prize winning architect, few authors have approached it through the lens of storytelling. This absence is curious, because in many interviews and articles, Fehn makes an analogy between building and storytelling, and between materials and language. I propose that the two issues – identity and storytelling – are indeed connected, and in this essay I will explore the nature of an architectural identity through storytelling. To do so, I will refer to the conclusion of Richard Kearney’s wonderful essay, On Stories. In the text, Kearney responds to the ever-present call for the death of storytelling by invoking five summary headings drawn from various models of narrative theory: plot (mythos), re-creation (mimesis), release (catharsis), wisdom (phronesis), and ethics (ethos). Though Fehn does not specifically name these themes in discussions of his projects, it is my wager that the same topics apply to and enrich an understanding of his work and, more specifically, the issues of architecture and identity.