Fairy Tale Architecture: The Little Match Girl

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.

“Grandmother.” [Bernheimer Architecture]
“Grandmother.” [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 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 Cold Night.” [Bernheimer Architecture]
“The Cold Night.”

“The Veil.” [Bernheimer Architecture]
“The Veil.”

The Little Match Girl

Many readers cannot bear the unrelenting sadness of this short fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It has a spare and harrowing plot. A young girl is sent out by her impoverished parents to sell matches on the last evening of the year. She is barefoot, for she has lost her slippers; one has simply gone missing, and the other is stolen by a boy who says he will use it as a cradle for his own future children.

The cold little girl cannot sell any matches. She begins to despair, knowing her father will beat her when she gets home. Of course, in Andersen’s time, begging was illegal; the matches are a prop for the girl and for the story. And so she sits, leans against a stone wall and lights a match against it. What warmth this brings to the girl! Beside her, she sees, there is now a hot stove. Yet when the match flickers out, the stove disappears. Coldness again. The next lit match reveals a table lavishly set — a fat goose waddles toward her with a fork and knife in its breast. The match dies and the goose runs away.

A Christmas tree appears as the third match is struck, and the girl reaches to touch a branch with a cold hand, but it vanishes when the match expires. Shivering, she lights yet another match and the tree rises before her once more, now lit with thousands of candles! The tree is so tall it merges with sky, and then a star falls from the sky and the girl’s dead grandmother appears: the only person who ever loved the little match girl. They embrace in a light broader than any we can imagine and rise to a place where there never was hunger or pain.

In the morning, the match girl is frozen to death by the wall. In her stiff hands she holds matches — half of them burned. “She tried to warm herself,” observe some passersby. None of them, we are told, imagine the glory she witnessed with her grandmother on that cold New Year’s Day.

I don’t know why I assigned this tale to my brother’s firm. Andersen is an exquisite stylist, and this is an iconic winter tale, but I don’t believe it’s currently widely read to young people in the United States. I discovered it in a library book when I was a child, shortly after learning about starvation from the graphic documentaries about concentration camps that we watched in Sunday School. The Old Testament, Holocaust films and Hans Christian Andersen merged in my young mind. I was not scared of stories, but the documentaries had taught me that life was not a storybook.

Of course, there are times when life feels story-like. When Andy and I were little, we would sometimes accompany our sisters into the snowy woods by our house. We’d bring a box of matchbooks lifted from my mother’s laundry room (she kept them on a shelf above the washing machine in an empty Folgers coffee can). The matchbooks were from places like Howard Johnson’s, Ground Round, Locke-Ober. In the woods we pretended to sell matches to each other, and sometimes — afraid of getting hurt, or in trouble — we would light them.

The domestic hallucinations of “The Little Match Girl” are familiar to those of us leading lucky, safe lives: a kitchen stove, a table set with a nice supper, a holiday tree, a loving grandmother. In Andersen’s story, strangers walk unseeingly past the little girl on the very night of her death. They’re doing holiday errands. They do not offer her help.

How many times have I turned myself cold, and not helped someone in need? Bernheimer Architecture illuminates this story with images that are heartbreaking and strange. Their Little Match Girl suffers, dejected, inside an ice cube; no holiday beverage ever will be quite the same.

— Kate Bernheimer

“Tree.” [Bernheimer Architecture]

“The New Year.” [Bernheimer Architecture]
“The New Year.”

Three Questions for Andrew Bernheimer from Kate Bernheimer

Bernheimer Architecture — by which I mean my brother — asked me to choose the tale for this installment. I asked Andy to look at “The Little Match Girl,” a story I love, though I suspected it would present emotional difficulties in addition to design potential for him. Andy, can you speak to the experience as a reader/designer in this regard?

I’ll admit laziness on this front: I stopped reading the story when the girl lit the match and the wall next to her became translucent, glowing, revealing the house inside. I didn’t know the story, but as an architect that itself caught me — who among us designers doesn’t like translucent, glowing walls? When I came back to the story to finish reading it (it is short, so my embarrassment in the laziness of not finishing the first time is rather immense) I became cognizant of the power of the story, and the overwhelming sadness that it imparted on me as someone who doesn’t look forward to death (at least not yet). And as a parent the idea of an abused, hypothermic child who sees release in dying of exposure was pretty horrible. So this tripped me up, and what I initially thought was a story that would lend itself to elegant architectural invention was not that at all. In fact, I became paralyzed by the image of this dead, frozen girl. So I decided to look at the conditions of the death, as opposed to the physical structures and objects of the story. The drawings are images of the elements of the story photographed through the distorted surfaces of ice sheets, made in my freezer.

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?

Yes, the sadness. While the story poses the death of the child as a release, a new freedom and salvation, I see it only as the death of an abused child, a wasted life. So the sadness was a huge blockage. I don’t really practice architecture with any aspiration of drawing or designing sadness, grief, or spaces of suffering.

Where would you like to see your design built?

Nowhere. I have zero interest in seeing frozen dead children! Though they could be very interesting as bizarre, maudlin drink chillers if made into gag ice cubes and served in eggnog. They’d melt away, leaving just a tiny child in one’s holiday beverage.

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 Little Match Girl,” Places Journal, December 2012. Accessed 08 Aug 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/121218

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Past Discussions View
  • 12.21.2012 at 12:38

    These visuals offer fine abstract representations of some of the motifs, feelings, etc., in Andersen's tale. It's interesting that you found the "sadness" to be such a challenge--as the sadness is often at the core of Andersen's tales. It's what makes many of them so beautiful. Still, I can see that an architect is not usually chasing sadness as an effect.

    Fascinating project.