Fairy Tale Architecture: The Death of Koschei the Deathless

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.

Fairy tale architecture: design for "The Death of Koschei the Deathless"
[LTL Architects]

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 a hero or heroine who must imagine new realms and new spaces — new ways of being in this strange world? 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

The Death of Koschei the Deathless

Here is a Slavic variation on a story of the man, or the monster, or the monstrous man referred to in multiple tales by the same name: Koschei the Deathless. So terrified to die was Koschei that he cast a spell on himself to prevent his own death. Unfortunately, because he was in such a state of fear all the time, he wasn’t able to cast such a great spell. He ended up with a pretty good ability to avoid death, but not a perfect one. And thus he was left with the original terror, which he tried to escape in various ways. Some of his methods were unusual, such as his penchant for riding naked on an enchanted horse around the Russian countryside. Talk about a Death Drive. And some of his death-defying antics were common, such as his habit of abducting young women. As L. Ron Hubbard wrote of Hitler, he went “mad dog.”

Finally, Koschei the Deathless took the drastic measure of removing his own soul from his body. The mechanics are unexplained, though it cannot have been a painless procedure. I imagine it looked something like Ursula removing Ariel’s voice in Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid. We know more about what happened next. Koschei put his soul in a needle, slid the needle in an egg, tucked the egg in a duck, nested the duck in a rabbit, placed the rabbit in a locked iron box, and buried the locked iron box under an oak tree.

These defensive layers against death are almost poignantly lame. As the story goes, if anyone ever found the locked iron box, the rabbit would run. If the rabbit was caught, the duck would fly. And if someone shot down the duck and pried out the egg and broke its shell, the needle would break too. Only then, Koschei believed, would he perish. Certainly, Freud would have something to say about this elaborate scheme, about the fantasy that there could ever be a perfect solution to remedy an imperfect spell.

Fairy tale architecture: design for "The Death of Koschei the Deathless"
[LTL Architects]

Leaving aside the metaphysics involved in hiding one’s soul in a needle, I see a few simple problems with the man’s logic. By my reading the duck and the rabbit would suffocate if buried in a locked iron box, and their little bodies would no doubt decay. Inside their remains, the egg would decompose too. So if anyone found the locked iron box, wouldn’t they find — nestled amidst fur, feathers, and bones — an intact silver needle? Also, I’ve never understood why the needle would break just because the egg was slipped out of the duck.

Here the architects were drawn to Koschei’s obsessive nesting of forms within forms or spaces within spaces.

Koschei the Deathless has many companions in literature: a wild female-driven (even feminist) adaptation in Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book, J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort with his awful torn soul, Italo Calvino’s intricate rendering of the Italian fairy tale “Body-without-Soul,” the sorcerer in Kathryn Davis’s terrifying novel of girlhood, The Duplex. And also in life. A naked film producer chasing girls in a hotel room, a naked man chasing girls on a horse: let’s admit it, okay? True evil always comes in quite human form.

None of this should distract you from these gorgeous illustrations by LTL Architects. One of the more fascinating things about fairy tales is that they inspire breathtaking art. The madness and beauty seen in precise details help us access the hopes and fears encoded in the story. Here the architects were drawn to Koschei’s obsessive nesting of forms within forms or spaces within spaces. They were interested, too, in the buried reliquaries and how they function in space and in time. This is a beautiful rendering of a very strange tale.

— Kate Bernheimer

Fairy tale architecture: design for "The Death of Koschei the Deathless"
[LTL Architects]

Three Questions for LTL Architects from Kate Bernheimer

You chose to emphasize the nesting techniques in your design for “The Death of Koschei the Deathless.” This makes sense, for I have noticed a lot of nesting in your firm’s designs for example, prominently in the Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center + Early Childhood Initiatives Center, whose design, as your website so gracefully describes, “turns the building into a structure that both provides a home for childhood development and learning for 240 children, and an opportunity to learn from the building about the place in which we live.” Its “ring of vertical tree-like poles that forms the perimeter of the project, providing the structure for the protective enclosure” reminds me of the tree you’ve presented us here, which shelters the rabbit. Were there protective trees in your childhoods or places where you nested for safety?

There were several, including a network of treehouses in the neighborhood woods. And you are correct in noting that it was this theme of nesting that primarily fascinated us about the Koschei tale, as it corresponded with ideas of sectional nesting that we have exploited as an architectural technique for generating spatial intricacy. There are all sorts of interesting resonances between the nesting in the story, which is articulated as a series of concentric enclosures that bridge between the very large and the very small, between landscape and animal, with spatial notions of nested enclosures. At HWCEC, the idea of nesting plays out as a building in the landscape and a house within the building, creating a sense of security and domesticity within a large institutional structure. The “trees” differ from the single tree in the story (a version of world tree or omphalos) in that they generate a field and form a boundary, rather than acting as a defined point. In that sense they become both a “grove” of entry for the building as well as one of the layers that encloses and protects it.

Your initial letter to me about this tale aptly described Koschei the Deathless as a “Voldemort” figure. The characters share a morbid fear of death, if you will. Their anxiety about loss of life is so profound that life itself scares them. Your designs are elegant and suggestive, moody and even anxious in their intricate repetitions and loops. They’ve got macro and micro qualities that serve as protections and traps simultaneously. Is architecture in part an argument with Thanatos? By “with” I mean both with and against it.

It is no longer a given that our buildings will outlast us. In that sense, to project anything is an inherently optimistic act.

Adolf Loos writes that the only architectural types which rise to the level of art are the monument and the tomb. Significantly, both are simultaneously an acknowledgement of and protest against the fleeting nature of human life. Architecture’s historic obsession with permanence embodies the same fundamental compulsion. That said, we now operate in a situation where the buildings and environments we make are themselves increasingly ephemeral, and it is no longer a given that our buildings will outlast us. In that sense, to project anything is an inherently optimistic act. The layered, repetitive quality of our work that you identify may be a kind of unconscious ward against this impermanence. Consciously, it is an aspect we are interested in that allows for diverse scales and contradictory qualities to coexist, often holding them in generative tension and allowing for the emergence of productive paradoxes.

If you could hide your soul in a needle, would you do it? If so, where would you put the needle, in so-called real life?

Perhaps not a needle but a 4H pencil lead. Somewhere in my drafting drawer where it will never be found.

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: The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” Places Journal, December 2018. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/181217

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.