Form Follows Fable
(Originally published 2008)
“The old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux towards a new form. We float in space and cannot perceive the new order.”
—Walter Gropius, 1919
Once all the zoning laws have been cited, the richness of the site exposed as constructed, the minutia of fabrication turn out to be simply minutia, the algorithms run their course, the discipline disbanded, and the history books pillaged bare and then burnt, what is left to stand on? What tiny, shoddy piece of ground may the designer find to plant their feet and grab hold of their bootstraps?
There’s no ground left at all. We’re all astronauts orbiting a toxic earth—a hunk of rock on which we find it increasingly difficult to agree upon anything. The architect finds themselves with the rest of humanity, inhabiting billions of tiny spacecraft, nothing but a hyper archipelago loosely tethered by the earth’s faint gravity (its last indisputable attribute). Slowly and inexplicably the architect has been veering into the darkness, adrift and ever more alone. A speck in the vacuum — not dead so much as lost, and a little bored. One can only talk to themselves for so long before they get tired of the company.
Finding themselves floating, the architect now awakens and does what any sufficiently bored person does: they dream up stories that explain the universe, their place in it, and all its contents. After the excitement and the dread of being totally alone have subsided, the most fantastic fables are spun. These stories are equal parts logical leap, fabricated detail, exaggerated memory, and hopeful conjecture. Although the origin of the fable is ultimately quite arbitrary and personal, the story is captivating and takes on a life of its own. The fable is a transmission. It’s the first crackle of communication sent across the vacuum for others to hear, because it’s the first thing we find worthy of sharing.
From these fables comes form. The desire to explain and to understand gives way to an imperative to extend and elaborate. All of the fleshy details of the fable come to life with each retelling of the story more elaborate and engaging than the last. The fable may not always be recited in exactly the same way, but it is consistent enough — adaptable rather than unstable.
Through its sheer ability to captivate, the fable creates a world that is shared between speaker and the listener. Without benefit of ground or gravity, the fable sketches a possible organization of the universe that offers an explanation of the accumulated matter of space. To dwell in space is to continually fabricate your own world and to hone the art of seducing others with the telling of these fables. A common understanding is the most that the inhabitants of separate spacesuits may ever hope to share.
To be comfortable telling stories is to desire a shared existence, a “we” amongst the autonomous stars, that is OK with continual re-invention and happy to be part of many manys. The designer who lets form follow fable chooses to organize the material of their little corner of the universe (always an “I” act) and to make it legible to others how and why they did so (the big “we”). In doing so, the designer liberates themselves from the toxicity of the terrestrial without giving up on the necessity of contributing something meaningful to the life of all those spacemen who don’t happen to call themselves “architect.”
It’s not easy to begin telling fables. That instinct has been programmed out of the architect in favor of arguments whose rigor is inversely proportional to the in-disputability of the claims upon which they’re built. These arguments are always quite rigorous. Like argumentation, telling fables takes practice. It promises to reintroduce something that architecture has been missing for a while: fun. If we’re all lost in space, the very least we can do it try to make life a little better and have a decent time while doing it. Are you ready to join us in the vacuum?