Once upon a time, a rather peculiar child was born.

Narrative, Students

Once upon a time, a rather peculiar child was born.

Sean Cottengim & Alex Gormley



Once upon a time, a rather peculiar child was born.

It wasn’t a baby boy, or a baby girl, or even a little puppy. It was a tollbooth.

This little building came humbly into the world. There was no silver spoon from a signature architect parent, and there was little celebration of its arrival, aside from a handful of toll booth workers happy to have a place to sit.

It was simply a tollbooth. Though a valuable building – useful in the busy, high-traffic, motorway system – and sturdy, with decent proportions and a pretty snazzy blue color; it was of sheer practical use. It had no spatial quality to speak of and was in no way glamorous. The building’s proportions were fair, but its details were poor and it was made of lowly materials. Its acrylic glazing was already scuffed and hazy.

This diminutive nature didn’t prevent him from dreaming however.

And with every passing vehicle the tollbooth wondered what other kind of building it might like to become:

“75 cents”


Maybe I could be a  bustling fire station….

“75 cents”


or an enormous old castle….


a rumbling sports arena


a towering skyscraper.


a yummy candy factory


a complex space station

“Thank you, have a great day…”


a sophisticated museum

“Thank you, have a great day……..”

Now after quite some time of toll-by-toll daydreaming, the tollbooth had made up it’s mind to change it’s path and become a world-renown building, something special – like on the cover of all those fancy architecture magazines. Celebrated not only for its amazing spaces and illuminating light but its incredible, articulate details. With its vent-space in the clouds it was easy to ignore the many passing customers through the toll-way.

These mental exercises continued day by day until another peculiar thing happened…

“My oh my what an interesting building you are!” said a cheery young woman.

Just when the building thought there was nothing more in this world for him other than the glamorous museum in the center of the architecture universe, he was struck cold.

“Who is this woman?” He thought to himself. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful face!”

The building was quite smitten and invited the woman inside. They spent time together discussing the building’s plans and what sort of exciting changes lay ahead. Over time the building and the woman formed a relationship and before they knew it, the woman had moved in. The following summer the building had added some sleek columns for a backyard portico for outdoor get-togethers instead of the bold, broad museum exterior they were originally for; it would get to it next year. But as time passed the building and the woman spoke less and less about the grande museum plans and more and more about their common interests – cooking, watching films, making things, music. The buildings spaces began to change slowly but surely to reflect these interests. As their relationship grew so did their family and before long they had children of their own: Francis and Darlene.

And so began the many and interesting events of their lives:

The nursery and soundproofing were added so the neighbors could get some peace and quiet…

The time they built a lofty addition to add rooms for the kids…

The year the kids spent make-believing the building was a submarine…

The time they put in skylights to grow food for a science project…

When they added a library to make room for a kids play area…

The time Francis broke her leg so the building created a track through the house she could use to roll along…

When they outfitted the family room with high ceilings like a chapel so Darlene could practice her cello…

…Oh and the extra loft space for sleepovers.

When the library became two stories for all the studying the children did…

When they added a bike repair shop to the garage for their new commuters…

Can’t forget the rock climbing wall – complete with a waterfall!

The tollbooth -now the family home – was a complete reflection of their lives; it evolved as the family did. Sooner than they thought, however, the children had grown up and moved out of the house. Darlene was off to teach music at a middle school, and Francis off to work for an architect.

The building and the woman rested. They had friends over for dinner and talked about old times. They were young and dreamers once, but every now and then a thought would creep into the Tollbooth’s  attic space. It would remember it’s big dream of becoming that glamorous, edgy-yet-stoic museum. “Where did it all go?” it thought. “What have I done with myself?” What was it now? It had many spaces, mixed and varied. No particular theme to speak of, no grand halls, no breathtaking artwork. It was most definitely not fit for any magazine cover….

Time went on and Francis had made quite a name for herself as an architect. Francis became known for her innate sensibility to space and light tied together with her rather oddball formal styling. Her buildings began popping up far and wide and were recognized by all the world’s magazines. When she was asked where she finds her inspiration, Francis simply replied, “it’s easy, all I have to do is copy the house I grew up in,

and all the times it was a fire station,

and an enormous castle,

and a battle fort,

and a glamourous skyscraper,

and a yummy candy factory,

and an incredible mansion,

and a even a space station.

“It really was this incredible collection of spaces growing up and when I think about it all my ideas are right there inside. It’s a museum of all these memories. ”

The building and the woman sat together, reading and rereading the magazine article.

It was then when the building realized that, in a way, it became what it had a always set out to be. A building of inspiring spaces, comforting rooms hosting countless stories, an exquisite example of architecture to be copied the world over.

With that thought the building turned to the woman and said, “What a life we have lived. Without you I wouldn’t not have given up those foolish dreams of grandeur and riches. But because of you, I have been granted all those dreams and thousands more.”

The End




Who influences you graphically?


This question is really hard for me to answer personally because a singular name does not come to mind when I think of my influences.  I would say the rendering styles of fala atelier and MOS were some of our initial influences for this project.  Personally I feel like I’m looking outside architecture and into the field of art for a lot of my inspirations in terms of my collage work.


I also feel that my influences are wide, I’m a pluralist fan of graphics. Archizoom, Archigram and FAT are some big ones coming to mind right now.

What dictated the graphic language of the narrative

Our graphic language developed from the underlying themes within the story being so closely related to the domestic narratives seen so prevalently in American media, prominently in 1950s sitcoms and adverts.  The use of collage was chosen given the media’s inherent ability to juxtapose existing elements and create new narratives which can be freely interpreted by each viewer.  This rather open representation style, as compared to more standard forms of architectural representation, creates a connection with each viewer and leads to a more enriched image.


How could a narrative based format as that of the book/animation reinforce and explore the proposal further in order to merge the narrative text and images?


I would love to make it a cartoon. In its current state it’s a story within which architecture plays a role and that really frees us and the audience from traditional expectations of architectural presentation and puts as much emphasis on experience and emotion as on built forms. This helps blur the line as to whether the value in the project is specifically narrative, speculative, architectural, or all of the above.

What is the effect and purpose of the white background? 

The white background is a way to create a neutral backdrop for the collaged imagery, developing an actor-stage relationship which enhances to narrative qualities of the imagery.  The white background also acts an imaginative element, coercing the viewer to fill in the blanks.

What was your process in terms of development of narrative and construction of images?

Both the narrative and the planning of the images developed concurrently, but the narrative was further along before we really dug into the images. Since we were limited to five we had to be thoughtful about where to use the images to put emphasis on the narrative and also to be cohesive on their own as a set. Once we had storyboarded the images based on the text, we began construction. There were two types of images in the set, perspectival ‘scenes’ and fantasy elevations. We continuously checked our work against the storyboard, text, and overarching themes to critique whether the images were communicating the way we wanted them to.



Sean is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati and Architect with a focus on representation and storytelling, and an interest in suburban themes.

Alex is a recent MArch graduate of the University of Cincinnati, recipient of the DAAP Award for Distinguished Design and an AIA Medal for his thesis: The Seven of U.S. : Simulation and the American Suburb.


2 thoughts on “Once upon a time, a rather peculiar child was born.”

  1. Reblogged this on Architecsure and commented:
    I think this is the best article I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about architecture (or…perhaps a metaphor for something else?)

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