Fairy Tale Architecture: Snowflake

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.

“‘Oh! my darling Snowflake!’ cried the old woman, and led her into the cottage.” [Abruzzo Bodziak Architects]
“‘Oh! my darling Snowflake!’ cried the old woman, and led her into the cottage.” [All images by Abruzzo Bodziak 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

Abruzzo Bodziak, Fairy Tale Architecture
“‘Let us make a little snow child.”


You can count on fairy tales for happy endings — sometimes just an image, perhaps of a soft, little haze rising into the sky. “Snowflake,” an iconic Russian fairy tale, is no exception. Its cold end is sublime. One of my favorite renditions is in Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book, and it was this one I sent to the design team Abruzzo Bodziak.

Lang’s version begins with a childless couple. They love children. They are lonely. They watch the neighborhood children play in the street during a snowstorm and decide to go out and play too. Why not? They are not in an amused mood but perhaps this will help, they think. They decide to build a snow child. “No use making a woman,” the wife (Marie) inscrutably says. Lang adds as an aside that she happened to be in a very good temper, implying this was not often the case.

So they put snowballs together in the shape of a girl. “Two holes were left for the eyes,” by the husband, and then, the next time he looks, the girl stares out of eyes, right into his own. Marie embraces the girl and covers her with kisses. Snow falls from the girl “as eggshell does from an egg” — which is either a beautiful image or a disgusting one, I cannot decide — and then, there she is: real as a human. Marie and her husband take her inside to the tidy domestic scene that has been missing something for a very long time.

And how they love her, as do all the village children. “She was their doll,” and a very smart doll at that, for she could learn anything quickly.

Spring arrives and Snowflake gets sad. Marie is quite worried. Worry blizzards this story from beginning to end. “What is the matter, dear child?” asks her mother. “Why are you so sad? Are you ill? Or have they treated you unkindly?” Snowflake tells her mother that she is well. Yet the child is sadder with each passing day — as the birds sing louder and louder and the flowers burst in the fields.

Abruzzo Bodziak, Fairy Tale Architecture
“‘She was their doll.”

“‘Oh, we will take care of her,’ cried the girls gaily, and they ran into the woods.” [Abruzzo Bodziak Architects]
“‘Oh, we will take care of her,’ cried the girls gaily, and they ran into the woods.”

Eventually Marie encourages her daughter to join her friends in the forest. The girls are gathering nosegays, singing and dancing. Some of the songs they sing are happy and some are sad (this is one of those fairy-tale details that nails the poetics). The girls make a little fire and they leap over it, and they tell Snowflake to do the same.

And then she vanishes. Ivan and Marie are heartbroken. They look for her always. Where did their little girl go?

Had a fierce wild beast seized her and dragged her into his lair in the forest? Had some bird carried her off across the wide blue sea?

No, no beast had touched her, no bird had borne her away. With the first breath of flame that swept over her when she ran with her friends Snowflake had melted away, and a little soft haze floating upwards was all that remained of her.

But Snowflake still lives — folded into the pages of a fairy-tale book. Abruzzo Bodziak has illuminated the Lang version with glowing and eerie motifs: silhouette cutouts of trees, of the dress Ivan and Marie designed for the child. Their work is sculptural and flat at the same time, a new expression of the old form of fairy-tale silhouette, practiced by Hans Christian Andersen in the past and artists like Kara Walker today. These designs remind me of the childhood hearth where I made paper dolls by the fireplace. I’d hold them up against the backdrop of flames and imagine them there; I’d forgotten till now.

Walk into this paper forest. It’s like walking into a favorite book.

— Kate Bernheimer

 “‘And they all began to sing and to jump one after another across the fire.”
“‘And they all began to sing and to jump one after another across the fire.”

 “A little soft haze floating upwards was all that remained of her.” [Abruzzo Bodziak Architects]
“A little soft haze floating upwards was all that remained of her.”

Three Questions for Abruzzo Bodziak from Kate Bernheimer

What was it about this fairy tale that drew you to it as an architect? A childhood memory? An image?

In our work, we seek to create specific atmospheres, and the unsettling nature of this story seemed a good testing ground. The concept of a human made from snow is intriguing, and we found this more mystical, somewhat dark take on the Frosty story deserving of attention.

It’s a simple, yet emotional narrative. We opted to render the story of Snowflake by creating imagery that depicted the moodiness we saw within it, using photography and simple model-making. We wanted to create these effects in reality, without the use of Photoshop and liked the idea of making something with our hands, since the couple in the story do the same to create Snowflake. Our tools were light and paper; we used paper folding and cutting techniques, some from our own childhoods.

Was there anything in the fairy tale that presented a specific problem for you from a design perspective, and how did you solve that problem?

It is a short fairy tale, with little description or elaboration: we saw it as a kind of low-resolution series of some very powerful concepts. As such, rather than insert invented detail, we sought to render those elemental moments in a series of tableaux: a girl made from snow, the protectiveness but isolation of home, then a foreboding forest, the fire that transforms the girl into vapor.

In our office we often use paper models and origami techniques as a quick way to effectively represent form. We liked the synergy that developed between the story and the modeling medium — in the final scene, it is fire that destroys snowflake, but representing fire within our paper world presented a specific challenge.

An additional question was whether to include the human form, since the scenography plays such a strong role. We decided it would be more powerful not to model actual human figures, but rather to include suggestions of a character or occupied space, through the cottage lit from within, or the hands making a dress.

Where would you like to see your design built? Who would be the ideal person, entity, region — real or imagined — to acquire the plans and execute them?

Since our project is not so much a design as it is a method of suggesting mood with simple technique and low resolution, we find the desire to test these ideas out at a the scale of an occupiable environment.

“Snow lay so deep that it came up to the knees of even the tallest man.” [Abruzzo Bodziak Architects]
“Snow lay so deep that it came up to the knees of even the tallest man.”

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: Snowflake,” Places Journal, December 2012. Accessed 10 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/121217

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