Fairy Tale Architecture: Little Red Riding Hood

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 Little Red Riding Hood
[Mary English and Xavier Vendrell]

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

Caperucita Encarnada pasó un susto … y luego ¡nada!

I have an exercise for you. Say the words “girl, wolf, woods” to your interlocutor. Then ask her the question, “What story are we in?” Please report the results to me.

These are the first words I say every time I teach my large lecture class, Introduction to Fairy Tales. Girl, wolf, woods. The seats are filled with hundreds of young adults, some the first in their families to attend university, some who grew up speaking languages like Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and O’odham. A beautiful chorus of voices, a chorus that would lift the spirits of any professor — let alone a fairy-tale scholar — chimes forth with youthful, deserved confidence. They sound surprised to know that they’ve got this: Little Red Riding Hood!

Now, make no mistake about it. This is often the first thing I ask when I give lectures to older adults in museums, too. Their response is as immediate and as gleeful.

The fairy tale’s borders are open. Somehow these spare motifs (girl, wolf, woods) indicate that whosoever wants to take company with them is welcome.

What is it about Red that makes her so memorable and so appealing? Scholars have pondered this for decades, pointing to the story’s primary colors and motifs; its effortless engagement with symbolism of the woods as a wild, indeterminate place; its apt observations on cultural shifts in urbanity, domesticity, and rurality; its participation in political refrains about gender, class, race, and Others; its openness to interpretation from feminist, medical, radical, cautionary, and religious perspectives. Not to mention its simple, skeletal form. Setting aside a tugging concern that the story is so popular because of the gendered theme of predation, I believe widespread familiarity alone is enough to explain the appeal. Everyone recognizes Little Red Riding Hood. Can it be that the simple pleasure of recognition is more powerful than any sophisticated critical pose?

The story also exemplifies what I call the “free love” fairy tales practice as a minoritarian art form. Its borders are open. Somehow these spare motifs (girl, wolf, woods) indicate that whosoever wants to take company with them is welcome. All it takes is a minor addition, a new detail, a shift in the setting, to let the reader know they’re in the same story, only different. Some meaningful alteration to the character (Freeway casts Reese Witherspoon as the victim of a corrupt foster system who wears a red hoodie); a shift in the composition (Kiki Smith’s artwork Companions arranges the girl in a tender if damaging pose with the wolf); or an inversion of the color palette (the Chinese tale Lon Po Po stretches into shadowy abstraction), takes readers down a new path, but never so far that they are lost.

Antonio Robles published his charming iteration in 1964. From the title alone, one gets a sense of its joy — “Caperucita Encarnada pasó un susto…y luego ¡nada!” (Little Red Riding Hood Incarnate had a scare… and then, nothing!). It is really frustrating to me that this delightful story has never been translated into English. (Note to self: commission this for the next issue of Fairy Tale Review.) Robles fled the Spanish Civil War and was exiled in Mexico for three decades, where he produced a very popular children’s radio show. His Riding Hood retains a childlike fancy, and it gets a little extra verve from Robles’s cheerful poetics. The sly title —  encarnada means both red and incarnate — invites the reader to enjoy the story’s easy frisson.

Just as ‘girl, wolf, woods’ signals Little Red Riding Hood to my students, ‘gable, lintel, square cutout, arc’ signals the Vanna Venturi House to fans of postmodern architecture.

The wolf in this tale is gluttonous rather than vicious. After eating two entire bulls, he uses their horns as toothpicks to clean his teeth. This gluttony is given as the reason why he swallows Caperucita whole. At the subsequent trial, his defense attorney (a fox) notes that the wolf did not even leave a mark on his victim; he is just a “poor little animal” with apparently ineffective fangs! Caperucita asks that he be forgiven, for she did indeed emerge unscathed, but the wolf is nonetheless sentenced to jail, where he is fed a vegetarian diet of radishes and carrots. Oh, the punishment! Afterwards, he and the girl remain good friends and walk together (he as her protector) each Saturday … to grandmother’s house. What next?!

The playful and clever designs shown here are by architects Mary English and Xavier Vendrell, who have collaborated on various projects over the past fifteen years. They capture one of Robles’s twists — the weaponized umbrella that Caperucita uses to save herself. And for the scene of the crime, the architects have brilliantly used the iconic home Robert Venturi designed for his mother in Philadelphia. Just as “girl, wolf, woods” signals Little Red Riding Hood to my students, “gable, lintel, square cutout, arc” signals the Vanna Venturi House to fans of postmodern architecture. (That very phrase comes from Alexandra Lange’s review in Curbed.) The bold patterns and shapes here have a handmade quality that echoes Robles’s cheerful telling, and the architects’ use of Mother’s House (as it is also known) reminds me of the story’s distinctly matrilineal lines. Mother, daughter, grandmother. Perhaps this is the story’s heart, its holy trilogy, its very arc.

Lange reports that Robert Venturi once said, “Architecture is the opiate of the mothers.” While I have no idea what this means, I wholeheartedly agree, and borrow the sentiment here. Fairy tales are the opiate of the mothers.

— Kate Bernheimer


Three Questions for Mary English and Xavier Vendrell from Kate Bernheimer

My brother was kind enough to tell me that the structure in your charming design is modelled after a very famous work, Robert Venturi’s Mother’s House. This structure strikes me as a perfect selection for intuitive reasons, and I would love to hear a bit about how you landed upon it as the home you would use for this Little Red Riding Hood variation. Did the Venturi come to mind for you immediately? What was your discussion around it?

It was the house that came to mind right away. The story has three elements: Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf, and the house. The image of Little Red Riding Hood is iconic; any image of a wolf is iconic; so the house needed to be an iconic house. It had to be a house that anyone would recognize as a house. In a way, the Venturi house is a house that a kid can draw, with the roof form and the chimney. And any adult will understand it is a house, but it’s something more, and obviously an architect or a designer will have another level of reading.

Your designs here have a domestic aesthetic that suggests an intimate connection with handiwork as a vital aspect of architectural life. Here, the “making of objects” become part of the story. I adore the visual suggestions about the girl’s outfit — its pattern, its making. Really, I felt deeply involved in your images – how they invite me to imagine their construction, which is the way houses are brought into being. How do you think of the handmade, in terms of its correlation to the concept of home?

A good design has from its inception an understanding of the construction process and its materiality, whether it is a dress, an object, a piece of furniture, or a building.

In the fairy tale the only mention of color is the red of the garment and the white of the house. So the first decision in the making of the garment, to decide on red, is important. And then the fabric is selected and the pattern is selected and the iconic image is constructed. The garment is the character; we don’t know what the girl looks like.

It is the same with the house. As an architect you cannot imagine a building without imagining the materials and the ways of construction. You think through how the things will be built.

As architects we understand work in section. In that sense, the section of Little Red Riding Hood inside the wolf inside the house — and the umbrella in the wolf — the drawing is complex and simple. These are real houses expressed in section that at the same time explain the story so that a kid or an adult can understand.

Did you know a version of “Little Red Riding Hood” story when you were a kid? Do you remember where or how you knew it — did someone tell it to you, or was it in a book? Do you remember anything about the space in which you learned about it? And, finally, can you remember which detail most intrigued you from the story, back then, and why?

We don’t remember because the story is everywhere. It is part of our culture. Someone can know the character of Little Red Riding Hood without knowing the story. Parents and grandparents tell the story to kids. Kids of different ages see it in books with different representations, but Little Red Riding Hood stays the same. So that is why it is easy to represent because the main image is in the garment. We were interested in the story of its making.

About the Series: Fairy Tale Architecture

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

Author’s Note

Thank you to my colleague Adela C. Licona, who helped interpret this story from the Spanish and shared key insights. Dr. Licona is a scholar and artist who works through socially engaged art as intervention and as coalitional gesture. Her project TENDER R/AGE :: RABIA TIERNA is currently circulating as a collaborative arts intervention into family separations at the US/Mexico border. Her co-edited book Precarious Rhetorics introduces what she terms the “regime of distortion.” She is a member of the Colectivo Fronteristas art collective.

— Kate Bernheimer

Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: Little Red Riding Hood,” Places Journal, December 2018. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/181218

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