Fairy Tale Architecture: Jack and the Beanstalk

The brother-sister duo of writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer curate a series in which diverse architects explore the intimate relationship between the domestic structure of fairy tales and the imaginative realm of architecture.

All images by Leven Betts with Bret Quagliara.

Fairy tales have transfixed readers for thousands of years, and for many reasons; one of the most compelling is the promise of a magical home. How many architects, young and old, have been inspired by the hero or heroine, banished from the cottage, lost in the woods, who risks everything to find a forever-space? Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming.

— Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer

Jack and the Beanstalk

In this familiar story, a poor mother sends her son to town with a cow to sell, and he trades the cow for magic beans. His mother becomes angry when he returns home and throws the beans out the window. Even the youngest reader understands that she is very tired and hungry and desperate to care for her son. She is not a bad person; this is not a story about a bad mother. It is the story of a hero climbing a beanstalk: a huge beanstalk that grows overnight from the magic beans.

He climbs and climbs, sometimes through the clouds, until he reaches a rich giant’s house. Of course, it is no safe haven. There is treachery and madness about. The boy escapes narrow death more than once, with help from the giant’s wife and, in some versions, a sleeping cat or a teakettle. All forces come out to protect this boy and his desperate mother.

Perhaps most commonly associated with this story is its delicious refrain:

I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he ‘live, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

This song can be seen as a twist on the household game in which a child is gleefully chased by a grown-up who teases, “I’ll eat you up!”

In some variants of the tale, Jack actually kills the giant; in the cleaned-up versions, he escapes as the giant snores deeply and contentedly. Often he must escape three times before returning home to great wealth.

The vehicle for all the magic in this story — its adventure and triumph — is the beanstalk. It leads up to the sky, where we find the giant’s house. The beanstalk is rarely described; such a great and powerful structure needs no description. Fairy tales are exemplified by spare and abstract detail, leaving enormous space — big as the sky — for the reader to wonder.

What comes of Jack’s magical beanstalk? Usually, at the end, it’s cut down.

— Kate Bernheimer

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Three Questions for Leven Betts from Kate Bernheimer

How did you settle on the most important space of the fairy tale?

We were interested in the beanstalk itself — the place between the ground where Jack and his mother live and the sky where the Giant lives.

When you were a child, was there any structure you encountered that reminded you of a fairy tale then, or does now? Can you describe it?

Not really, though giant trees are very magical.

What are the key elements of your architectural design and how is it sited?

We chose to think of the beanstalk as an infrastructural network between Jack’s world and the Giant’s world. Jack and the Giant are both plundering from each other and the beanstalk is the inhabited highway between them, with different environments and ecosystems. We also thought of the beanstalk as both natural and machined.

About the Series: Fairy Tale Architecture

Places’ ongoing series on fairy tale architecture is curated by writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer.

Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: Jack and the Beanstalk,” Places Journal, December 2011. Accessed 05 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/111221

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