Fairy Tale Architecture: Rapunzel

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 Guy Nordenson and Associates.
All images by Guy Nordenson and Associates.

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


Behind the familiar sing-song phrase, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” is a complicated story that has changed many times over many hundreds of years. In early versions of this tale-type, a childless husband and wife await the arrival of their first-born daughter. During her pregnancy the wife craves a plant such as rampion (or radishes). Her husband faithfully gathers the food from a walled garden but is apprehended by the garden’s owner, a witch, who demands that the parents hand over the baby at birth. They oblige. The strange witch locks Rapunzel in a tower when she is twelve and sings to her nightly to let down her hair.

Some years later a prince comes upon the girl in the tower, and Rapunzel lets down her braids for him to climb up. They fall in love and devise a plan for escape. (In early versions, before the story was sanitized, Rapunzel couldn’t get out of the window because her clothes were too tight — she was pregnant!) Of course, the plan doesn’t work; the witch casts Rapunzel out into the wilderness, and the prince is left to wander in search of her. In many retellings, the witch cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and dangles the severed braids from the tower window. When the prince climbs up, he is shocked to find himself face-to-face with the witch and not his beloved.

As with many fairy tales, the story ends happily — after all of the grief — with a reunion of Rapunzel and the prince. Yet some authors continue the story beyond that peaceful conclusion to show the baby-thieving witch trapped in the tower forever. So while fairy tales are often associated with “happy endings,” in fact many tales mete out, to some terrible creature, an equally terrible fate. They do so in spare and glittering language — leaving the reader with a stark image, perhaps a witch holding a long, severed braid.

Rapunzel’s tower has come to symbolize both an enchanted, magical home and a dreadful prison from which to escape. Inside, one’s heart is full of desire and longing; and one must always also get out. The complicated emotional valence of this space is part of its longstanding appeal.

— Kate Bernheimer

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Two Questions for Guy Nordenson and Associates from Kate Bernheimer

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

There was no doubt that the tower in “Rapunzel” was the key site of the fairy tale.

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

As structural engineers we were instantly drawn to the “tower that stood in a forest and had neither a door nor a stairway, but only a tiny little window at the very top” featured in the Brothers Grimm version of “Rapunzel,” and we looked to our previous design for the Seven Stems Broadcast Tower for inspiration. We were able to meet the Grimms’ strict design requirements by employing a slender tower design of vertical cylindrical stems that are joined by intermittent outrigger beams with a reinforced space at the very top for Rapunzel’s long captivity.

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: Rapunzel,” Places Journal, December 2011. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/111222

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