Fairy Tale Architecture: The Snow Queen

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.

One Snow Bee.
One White Bee. [All images by Young Projects]

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 Snow Queen

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” is exquisitely designed and awfully strange. Its topography is made of atoms, lakes, castles, mirrors, and towns. Its seven stories (the language so house-like) tell a tale of friendship — here, between a little boy named Kay and a little girl named Gerda. A splendid example of the biological diversity intrinsic to old fairy tales, this world is teeming with species; hobgoblins, devils, angels, and bees join the small humans. Andersen, who also wrote experimental novels for adults, goes wild with language in “The Snow Queen.” Splinters of ice even spell out a word: ETERNITY.

So it makes sense that when my brother and I invited architect Bryan Young and his firm, Young Projects, to design a fairy tale for this series, we received this report: “We are making some great progress in the snow queen. Resin Bees magnetic swarms and defaced Barbie dolls.” In my line of work, that sentence makes perfect sense.

Resin Bees magnetic swarms and defaced Barbie dolls. In my line of work, that sentence makes perfect sense.

Most people associate “The Snow Queen” with, well, snow. And a queen. Not bees. Truthfully, it’s hard to find an American adult who can summarize the plot. One gets lost in its hive-like construction. Flowers and animals speak; girls sleep with knives by their beds; ice splinters in eyes; characters seem good but might be dangerous, or seem dangerous but might be good — this is a really challenging story to summarize. When I was a child it transfixed and confused me like no other tale could. I read it over and over again, never quite tracking the plot. Suddenly, roses are blooming! Then a girl threatens to slice open another girl! Oh dear, Gerda has forgotten her mittens!

About those bees. They are white bees in winter, the most improbable of bees, as improbable in a book as on earth. But anything goes in this ancient — or postmodern? — fairy-tale world. “It is the bees that are swarming,” Kay’s grandmother says, as she and the boy look out the window at the falling snow. Is there a queen, Kay asks? For he knows that a swarm always has a queen. Of course, his grandmother says. And so it is: the snowflakes are not like bees, they are bees. (In the translations I know, Andersen does not use metaphors or similes.) One of the tiny snowflake-bees grows into a human-size Queen made of ice. As I remember it, she is larger than life.

Young Projects names a building in the Queen’s honor, and they place her at the center of the story; their renderings depict her castle, her gown, her flight. They also visualize the swarm of white bees around the Queen. Bryan says that the images are inspired by the Second Story of Anderson’s tale, but they also remind me of the architecture and affect of the Seventh Story. In that part, the reader enters a dark, glittering, terrifying, but beautiful palace with a hundred rooms, a mirror lake, ice (or glass) that spells words, and miles and miles of hallways. The Snow Queen departs for warmer lands, where she will conjure some environmental disasters that may or may not be beautiful. They’re certainly very impressive. Alone in the palace, Kay freezes to death, before his friend Gerda rescues him. In the end they are grown up but still children somehow. That’s chilling and lovely. Bees sting, and also give honey — so too with friendship and books.

— Kate Bernheimer


Three Questions for Bryan Young from Kate Bernheimer

From the moment you chose “The Snow Queen,” you mentioned you wanted to pay keen attention to Hans Christian Andersen’s image of the swarm of white bees. Do you know what emotion or idea drew you to the bees?

We were excited to consider how a “white bee” might be structured in contrast to the branching six-arm crystals of snowflakes, which are geometrically determined by temperature and humidity within the immediate surroundings. Unlike snowflakes, a flurry of “white bees” grows and swarms in response to the disposition of the Snow Queen. She not only controls changes within the immediate climatic atmosphere, but, through forces akin to magnetic fields, she creates a radiating cloak of variable density and direction. A “white bee” develops three dimensionally, biased towards forces of attraction and repulsion, as opposed to the symmetrical plate formations of snowflakes.

In our architectural work, we often begin with a small material morsel that has been conceived with intense form-finding principles, which in turn suggests techniques for propagating the morsel into clusters, groupings, or (in this case) swarms. The material breakthrough in our exploration on “The Snow Queen” occurred when we created a single “white bee” by pouring resin at the precise moment magnetic filaments began to push toward and pull away from a source. The solidifying resin allowed us to freeze the magnetic forces, our white bees, which in our interpretation of the narrative would typically shift between phase states, as an indeterminate flow around the Queen. This is also why in our representations of her gown, you find both moments of distinct particles and moments of blurring or melting surfaces.

I love the Hive Lantern your firm designed. Can you describe any of the images for “The Snow Queen” as possible products?

Our hope was to actually take the bee swarm as far as a gown fit for a queen! We were extremely inspired by the gorgeous digital explorations of Neri Oxman, in which synthetic biological formations engage the human figure.

In our work, while there are cues taken from biological or more general environmental formation and pattern, there also is a bias to work through analog methodologies. While we speculated on the structure of a “white bee” through analysis of similar molecular structures, the final aesthetic principles are obviously the results of a process dictated by hand. In this way, the process for creating the “white bee” is more similar to our techniques for prototyping rather than final products.

Two examples in our office are the cast aluminum panels at the Tribeca Residence (with allied works architecture) and the pulled plaster tiles at the Gerken Residence. The cast aluminum is the result of the chemical reaction between molten aluminum and a layer of burlap. The pulled plaster tiles use a traditional method for extruding or pulling plaster moldings in which the shaping profile and controlling rails are reconsidered as adjustable elements during the plaster’s formation. The common thread between all these projects is an exploration of the aesthetic, material, and spatial properties that emerge within or due to a phase change, usually liquid to solid, but in “The Snow Queen” we employed melting as well as freezing.

As a designer, what problems does the very strange aesthetic space of “The Snow Queen” raise for you? And how strange is it? (I am thinking of the Mirror of Reason, the broken windows, that supernatural looking glass …)

Continuing with the theme above, it is space of constant formation and reformation. Neither solid nor liquid. To gaze through Hans Christian Andersen’s window in “The Snow Queen” is to see a world that is shifting between the real and unreal. In his words, “faces were so distorted that they were not to be recognized.” At times, it is changing scales. At times, objects and figures emerge slowly through an ambiguous landscape that is wonderfully dark and chilling. Black clouds and white bees.

About the Series: Fairy Tale Architecture

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

Bryan Young, Kate Bernheimer, and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: The Snow Queen,” Places Journal, April 2015. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/150405

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