Fairy Tale Architecture: The House on Chicken Feet

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 Bernheimer Architecture.
All images by Bernheimer Architecture.

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

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is one of the most impressive figures in Russian folklore. An old woman with witch-like powers, she flies in a huge mortar, using the the pestle as a rudder, or sometimes on a broomstick.

Sometimes she kidnaps children — or, lost in the woods or great field, they come upon her hut and never return home. One can hardly think of Baba Yaga without envisioning her spectacular hut. In folklore, it is often adorned with bones and little skulls. Standing on chicken legs, it spins when she is angry.

Though some versions of this ambiguous and poetic story imply that Baba Yaga eats children, this detail never is clear; in some scholarly interpretations, she is seen as a source of great consolation. The children who find the hut are often bewildered and seeking her counsel. As in many fairy tales, the magical hut may be associated with a yearning for home or for comfort.

Some linguists have noted that baba, the Slavic word for grandmother or old woman, may be related to the word for pelican, one of the great birds of legend. Returning to her nest to find her infants dead, the pelican pierces her own breast and revives them with her blood. It is not much of a leap to imagine that Baba Yaga spins her house out of grief. Or perhaps she flies with her little lantern to seek her lost children.

It is unfortunate that the tale of Baba Yaga is not more widely known.

— Kate Bernheimer

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Three Questions for Bernheimer Architecture from Kate Bernheimer

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

We determined that the house on chicken legs was, however obvious, an opportunity for interpretation. Houses can’t really look like chickens, can they? So we thought about how one might make a structure or an architecture “chicken-like,” both externally and internally.

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?

There was a funhouse in Denver, Colorado, that petrified me. My parents have a photograph of me running out at light-speed. It was castle-like, if I remember correctly. My first recollection of the architecture of castles was therefore as a container of fear.

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

The house is located on a clearing along a major flight path to the Vladivostok airport. The white and red knights, signifying daytime and nighttime, are the airplanes that travel along this corridor at different times of day. The house, made from a thickly insulated steel frame, is wrapped in tree bark and bulges, like a chicken’s belly perched on a steel structure. A spinning turntable sitting on a large thrust bearing allows the house to spin and reorient itself. A large Corten steel box mimics the airplane landing path, and serves as the entry and exit point for Baba Yaga, whose broom rack sits within that space. A small, wood-burning stove occupies the main living area, compact but deformed.

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 House on Chicken Feet,” Places Journal, December 2011. Accessed 20 Mar 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/111220

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Past Discussions View
  • 12.20.2011 at 18:01

    An inspired idea. Wish it was more than the three mentioned posts!

  • 01.03.2012 at 20:02

    Love it, there must have been something in the air in December. I hadn't thought of Baba Yaga in years, and then she came up in one of my writings recently too. (http://www.eatcology.com/chicken-tractor). I'm having a great time with the idea of making a house 'chicken-like'. A building with opinions, good insulation, the tendency to obsess... Add stones to the hearth stove and call it the gizzard. Name her Calatrava.