Researcher’s Notebook: Constructing Fairy Tales: Architecture for a Magical Realist World

Athens is a city where, according to Eugene Trivizas, ‘Myth precedes, reality follows, and imagination is not only infinite, it is also cheap’. Crisis has devastated the capital on multiple levels and two types of spaces that spread throughout its centre have the qualities and potential for a radical change: the Polykatoikia, which is the multi-storey apartment building and the Akalyptoi, which are the uncovered spaces in between the polykatoikias, which, in most cases, are left unused. Dr Trivizas, has been responsible for the teaching of criminology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Reading since 1978, as well as a visiting Professor of Social and Political Sciences at the Panteion University of Athens since 1992. Having created more than 150 worlds of the imagination, he is the father figure of the Greek children’s book. Tales such as ‘The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig’, ‘The Last Black Cat’, and the first Greek comic-strip and televised puppet show ‘Fruitopia’, (first published in 1983, illustrated by Nikos Maroulakis), each tackle ideas of social and political injustice. In his tales, through the use of allegory and tropes, imagination is always the antidote to a crisis.

I have started my design research by writing and illustrating a magical realist fairy tale, implying that our supposedly normal and normative world is itself a fantastical, magical realist dream. The tale is weaving subtle references to ancient and contemporary myths and the characters are at times becoming part of the spaces that surround them, alluding to an architecture that unfolds and is at the same time both figurative as well as immaterial. The tale is written in Greek and I am in the process of translating it to English.

Research Drawing 1

Daniela Zanini, an editor at The Still Point Journal, met up with Ifigeneia to find out more about the fascinating work she is doing as part of her dissertation project.

 How did you come across Eugene Trivizas’ work?

I grew up with the fairy tales of Trivizas, a sociologist, professor of criminology and father figure of the Greek children’s book, having invented more than 150 worlds for children. He is also the author of Fruitopia, the first Greek comic-strip and puppet show televised in the country in the late 1980s. With the help and inspiration of my teachers, I first became interested in magical realism in 2012 during the last year of my Master’s degree at The Bartlett School of Architecture, where I designed a primary school for the neighbourhood of Kipseli, in Athens. The school was designed as a magical realist microcosm equivalent to a nation. It had its own bank, parliament, rules and currency. It was composed of a series of allegorical fragments, where elements of the city reappeared transformed in the school. In the later years, I realised that I really enjoyed both drawing and writing, and that I could not do these things in the way I wanted in an architectural firm. For this reason, I decided to create my own project by means of an LAHP-funded PhD programme.

It is very interesting that the most prolific author of Greek children’s literature is an established sociologist and criminologist…

His fairy tales are an initiation in the world. They are not didactic, but implicitly, present a very strong set of values. Trivizas once said that the most interesting questions are those that children have asked him and the most interesting answers are those that criminals have given him.

Raising the topic of your PhD project in greater detail: what are some of the features encompassing your magical realist fairy tale?  

My story is called Blossomed Bitter-orange Forest, which is Athens and it is an allegorical magical realist fairy tale engaging themes of love, courage, and architecture, in a city that has been hit by a dictatorial regime which has taken away its colours and its creative people, leaving it black and white. The narrative starts in the first person, with a camera addressing the readers, placing us in a filmic real space, and later unfolds as a fairy tale. My story starts many times with ‘Once Upon a Time’: this familiar trope is a vessel that takes us back to the mythology of our childhood.

Why did you choose the genres of magical realism and fairy tale to discuss storytelling in the architecture of modern Greece?

Magical realism is a genre that employs fiction as a means of social and political criticism; some of the ways in which it achieves this are tropes and allegory. In a similar vein, the fairy tale is the magical realism narrative mode of the folktale tradition, as it started as a means of social critique, and its quest lays in the understanding of the self. Fairy tales started orally but shifted to the written mode around the end of the 16th century in Italy and France. They developed amongst French aristocratic women, who used them as a means of social critique, focusing on female matters. My research is looking at translating magical realism and the fairy tale, from literature to architecture, through figuration and allegory. I explore this through drawing and making models, with the neighbourhood of Kipseli in Athens as my case study.

Reading your PhD abstract, you claim that ‘our supposedly normal and normative world is, in itself, a fantastical, magical realistic dream’. What is the relationship, both in your imaginary work and in the real world, between fiction and truth?

I am interested in reality and I use fiction in order to study it. I believe that fiction cannot exist without reality, it is a parasite feeding off it. In architecture, one of the things I am intrigued by is the figurative, both in a literal and in an allegorical sense. In a successful magical realist imagination, whether visual or textual, the slip between the two worlds, real and magical, happens seamlessly and through a variety of thresholds. These two worlds are to be read in parallel. In my PhD, I am studying – through drawing, writing and making models – how this can occur in architecture. Language, for instance, functions not only for utilitarian purposes, but for poetic ones as well. Fiction is not that different from reality, it is just simpler, as there is always a message. Umberto Eco says that this is the reasoning behind why “we try to read life as if it were a piece of fiction” and we have a “tendency to construct life as a novel”, rather than the other way around.

 You claim that imagination can be ‘an antidote for crisis’. How do wealth and prosperity link to the production and the reception of art and architecture?

Unless it is a form of activism, I don’t think that art or architecture alone can solve political, social or financial problems. What they can do, however, is make people wonder. Certain art and architecture needs significant amounts of money to be produced; in contrast, Eugene Trivizas has remarked that ‘imagination is not only infinite, it is also cheap’. I am intuitively interested in things that are cheap, which is not necessarily only an ideological position, but it sits in the wider frame of my interest in magical realism, where the magic is encountered in the every day. As Salman Rushdie writes, ‘impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun’. I am interested in an architecture that speaks, and whose speech has a message – I am designing spaces that try to tell stories.

Which elements of your everyday or private life have influenced your work?

I don’t see how any kind of creative work can be detached from the everyday life. You experience magic in life and you try to figure out where it’s coming from; you experience pain and you try to decipher it. These experiences then form visual images or a verbal expression in our minds playing out like a film; the organisation of this material is the composition, which can take the form of a drawing, a model, or a piece of writing

Research Drawing 2


Where do you find your inspiration to create new characters, objects and landscapes for your story?

 My characters are not people I know. Rather, they are interpretations of people I know, and they are hybrids. There might be elements of truth in some of them, as I do not see how any creative work can be detached from reality, but my characters are not specific individuals. Reflecting on this boundary between fact and fiction in my work, I often ask myself how alive are your characters? I think that a good character is the one that makes you believe they are so real you could possibly bump into them on the street. In terms of the objects included in my drawings: some of them are architectural elements, which have a specific purpose in the building I am designing; others are mythical or fairy tale symbols alluding to other stories. With respect to landscapes, I am using Athens in its reality, and more specifically the neighbourhood I grew up in, Kipseli.

How do you make use of materials? Is it all digital or do you employ more traditional methods of drawing too?

I am working both digitally with architectural drawings and with handmade models. One of the fascinating aspects about the architectural drawing and model is that they are not the final pieces but they always refer to the building, which is what differentiates them from the artistic drawing and model. For my drawings, I am working with 3D modelling and then sometimes texturing it by hand. For the handmade models, I make use of a variety of materials: fabric, card, clay, metal, plastic, plaster, etc. I am building my models at a scale of 1:10, which is an appropriate size in order to figure out how these elements work in reality.

You have written the original story in Greek and you are in the process of translating it into English. What are the biggest challenges that you have encountered in this?

I needed lots of courage to start, as I have no prior experience in professional translation. After translating a few pages, I was very unsatisfied with the outcome. I realised that I had taken the original text and literally translated it, as it if were a mere grammatical, technical process. The poetry was lost. The essence was lost. I asked myself: “What is it that doesn’t work here?”. I realised that the main problem was the lack of empirical knowledge held by non-Greek readers. If you are writing about a small Greek island, how can you expect, for instance, an English person to understand exactly what you are referring to, how it feels to live in that specific place? I realised that the solution was to change the original text in Greek at times. This was actually a very creative process, for it gave birth to some new ideas, as well as new characters. Juliane House, in her book Translation says that “translation has been regarded as a kind of inferior substitute for the real thing, and it has been likened to the back of a carpet, or a kiss through a handkerchief. But it can also be seen more positively as providing access to ideas and experiences that would otherwise be closed off in an unknown language”. In my project, I work with different types of translations: from drawing to model, from text to drawing, finally from drawing and model back to the text. In any case, the translation must be truthful but also inventive: for me, a successful translation from a text to a drawing is always the one being able to produce new visual images.

Further audio excerpts of the interview have been linked to Still Point’s Sound Cloud page. Follow the link.

Ifigeneia Liangi was born in Greece, studied Architecture, and is now a first-year PhD student at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, where she is also a teaching fellow in Year 1. For her doctoral project, she is writing and illustrating a magical realist fairy tale exploring storytelling in architecture and the interplay between reality and fiction.




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