Fiction as Truth in Architecture

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When my love swears that she is made of truth,

I do believe her though I know she lies,

That she might think me some untutored youth,

Unlearn’d in the world’s false subtleties.

Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,

Although she knows my days are past the best,

Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:

On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.

But wherefore says she not she is unjust?

And wherefore say not I that I am old?

O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,

And age in love loves not to have years told.

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,

And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

(William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 138.”)


Harry O. Frankfurt refers to the Sonnet 138 by William Shakespeare to describe truth as a construction of fiction[1]. In the story, the intimacy of two lovers is mediated by a tacitly agreed artifice that bases their relationship. While the woman feigns to believe that her companion is younger than she knows he is, the man realises that she is aware of his deceit but — exchanging sympathies — he assents to the portrayal of herself as truthful. Their arrangement turns away from the factual to aspire to the ideal, as a flexible tale of desire, without the need of exterior approval. The possibilities of their future are thus delineated by the unverifiable limits that they have established. The illusion is operational — a condition to be assembled — as Antonio Negri declares, ‘the sole criterion of truth… is action. Truth is itself an action… a confrontation. When one acts, one goes beyond solitude because to act is to search for the truth, and truth always appears in common’[2].

If truth is action, then fiction as truth has the capacity of structuring any system of interiority — the space of sentiments and reason — and exteriority — the space of the world and society. Simultaneously, it tests and challenges the boundaries of its field of action through the creation of the new or the obliteration of the old. These attempts of positive or negative transcendence not only expose the strengths and the vulnerabilities possessed by the performing agent but also contributes to the formation of identity and the environment, as when mythical stories inspire actions and reactions. In this manner, the truth of fiction turns into a methodology of design that supports and organises expression, with the aim to avoid capricious detours by establishing intrinsic regulations that delineate potential engagement, saving the designer from the sabotage of arbitrariness[3].

In architecture, these operations become manifest in the sequence of its ideation and encounter. In the first instance, what emerges is the philosophical and ethical question of how form is ought to be conceived. Fiction serves as an instrumental and valuable truth that mobilises the parameters and intentions of patterns and motifs, which can serve to trace back the premises of design once it has been represented or materialised. The resulting construct can elude the rational and appeal to the emotional, uncovering the truth of fiction as a mood rather than as a function — even if function is the chosen style or attitude. In the second stage, the presence of the individual establishes a rapport with the surroundings in which new narratives about dwelling emerge. Although these revelations are informed by accumulated knowledge and dormant expectations, they are modified by the mutual influence between the involved forces, generating other truths or destabilising existing ones, in a moment of collision of fictions. As such, the intentions of architecture change with inhabitation and inhabitation is coloured by the gestures of architecture.

The architectural search for the ultimate fiction not only problematizes the autonomy of form and its experience but also its relation to history. For instance, creating a chronological account based on the understanding of the past as truth, Anthony Vidler identifies three main typologies in the development of modern architecture. The first goes back to the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, with a natural unit of design based on the ‘primitive hut’ (1755) by Marc-Antoine Laugier. Subsequently, the second arises at the end of the nineteenth century in response to conditions of mass production and technological development, epitomized in the work of Le Corbusier. Finally, the third stands free of determined roles, enabling architectural design and urban planning to become ontological entities, as in the ‘stararchitecture’ of Zaha Hadid, OMA, and Peter Eisenman, among others[4]. This classification appears as a historical fictionalization of architectural fictions, connecting nodes of the past as episodes of the discourse of the discipline — indicative rather than undisputable.

Under this light, fiction in architecture turns into a dynamic truth, as a topological enabler that combines function and expression through various techniques of design, in intertextual coexistence with other phenomena. Analogous to the literary — like in the lovers of the Sonnet 138 — it provides systematisation and order, with a beginning and an end yet articulating multiple and concurrent spaces and temporalities.

Fiction as truth projects architecture as fiction.



[1] Harry O. Frankfurt. On Truth. London: Phaidon, 2007. 87-89
[2] Antonio Negri. Negri on Negri. In
[3] For Adam Phillips, this truth is scientific since it avoids unnecessary desire. On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. London: Faber and Faber, 1993. xvii-xviii
[4] Anthony Vidler. ‘The Third Typology’. In Kate Nesbitt (ed.), Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture. London: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000. 261-263

Christian Parreno
Christian Parreno is a Research Fellow and PhD candidate at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, investigating the relation between boredom, space, and modern architecture. His particular writing published in Ruang Arsitektur's website titled "Fiction as Truth in Architeture" has been a research carried out partly at the Bartlett School of Architecture, and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He holds an MA in Histories and Theories from the Architectural Association, and a degree in Architecture from Universidad San Francisco de Quito.