Fairy Tale Architecture: Tiddalik the Frog

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.

Tiddalik the Frog, designed by Snohetta
“Streaming and pouring from his mouth,” detail. [All images by Snøhetta]

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

Tiddalik the Frog

As winter arrives in the northern hemisphere, we publish a new round of fairy tales, carrying on a series that began five years ago. We start with a design by Snøhetta. Look for tales throughout the week by Ultramoderne, Smiljan Radic, and Bernheimer Architecture, but don’t expect a light escape into fantasy. These imagined worlds draw their power from engagement with the real.

The tale interpreted here as “Tiddalik the Frog” comes from the Australian Aboriginal mythological tradition known as The Dreaming, or Dream Time. The Dreaming is “time out of time” — a beginning that does not come to an end — and its deeply philosophical concepts date back some 65,000 years.

Frog fairy tales often have an ecological theme. It is difficult to read a story like this without thinking about climate change and extinction.

Snøhetta’s watery, intricate, lovely images were inspired by a children’s version of the story. A charming narrator introduces Tiddalik the frog, who has been sleeping for ages. One morning, he awakens with an unquenchable thirst. “I’m so thirsty that I could drink a lake!” he thinks. So, of course, in a fairy-tale way, he drinks a lake.

His body swells as he slurps and gurgles until the lake is empty, but still he is thirsty. On to a stream, a watering hole, a puddle. He continues to swell. When darkness comes, he’s so swollen and tired that he falls into a slumber. But when he awakens, what horror! There is no more water at all. Everything is withering, dying. Flowers, fish, birds, and trees. Everything under the sun.

Quickly, the earth’s creatures put their heads together and come up with a plan. They will make the frog laugh, and when he opens his mouth the water will pour out. In the version Snøhetta shared with me, a wombat comes up with this idea; in other variations, it’s a wise old owl. (I like the wombat — wombat is a word with a bit of surprise!)

Alas, none of the animals can make Tiddalik laugh, and the harder they try, the more completely they fail. It’s like open mic night at a sad comedy lounge. If you’ve ever been asked “Where’s your sense of humor?,” you know that pleasures of this sort cannot be assigned. The animals try every trick in the book, but the frog is not amused, not even when they begin their heavy-footed dancing. The performance brings to mind Maurice Sendak’s “wild rumpus,” whose dancers are impressive, surely, but hardly hilarious, one has to admit.

But now the dancing creatures do good work after all: their thumping wakes up a poignant platypus, the sole, dreaming creature who has slept her way through the terrible drought that afflicts the land. She rises cross and determined. “You have woken me up,” she scolds Tiddalik. “You have disturbed my sleep.”

The story is about succession. It’s a story of the tides, a building up and washing away, a cyclical process. But it is also a story about a cataclysm.

The frog gazes at the platypus, at her soft fur and her duck’s bill and her duck’s feet. Okay, now there’s an unusual creature! And Tiddalik laughs. For the platypus is much funnier than all the old jokes and the new jokes he has heard. What brings real pleasure in life is often unusual, wouldn’t you say? The frog’s delight in the platypus is a performance of what psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips calls an “unforbidden pleasure.”

And so it was — in the beginning that hasn’t yet ended — that water returned, and life, again, thrived. Snøhetta’s imagery is teeming with beauty — very much alive.

Kieran Suckling, of the Center for Biological Diversity, has explored the science behind frog fairy tales, which often have an ecological theme. Amphibians’ impermeable skin makes them particularly vulnerable to environmental disturbances, and the most resilient species have adapted accordingly. The Australian water-holding frog retains water to survive drought. It is difficult to read a story like this without thinking about climate change and extinction: two unpleasures that should be forbidden.

As Suckling observes, the transformation of fairy-tale characters often is “not accomplished by word magic but by … appreciating the other.” Such stories “evolve to communicate the existential situation of the communities that tell them. That situation is less a matter of received values and beliefs than it is an engagement with the real.”

Long live The Dreaming.

— Kate Bernheimer


Three Questions for Snøhetta from Kate Bernheimer

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

We were first drawn to the story by the image of the ground, long hidden by water, suddenly revealed in a surprising way.

The story is about succession. It’s a story of the tides, the revealing and receding of water and landscapes. A building up and washing away, an end and a new beginning. The water in the story transforms and shifts between states and embodiments. It implies a cyclical process, but the story is also about a cataclysm, an event that reveals the delicate balance of our environment.

Maybe the toad is the earth at the center of things. It’s amphibious, relating to both ground and water at the same time. It’s caught in different states of vibration on a pendulum between liquid and solid, oxygen and carbon, between laughter and apathy. Matter is reshaped.

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

As architects and landscape architects, we found ourselves focusing on the tensions between shaping matter and the need for constant renewal of our environment. The toad pushes the boundaries too far, and equilibrium is disturbed. Landform and animals are transformed, deformed … but only temporarily, as balance is finally, thankfully, restored.

We started out making models from materials — water, earth (gypsum, lime, sand) — that could embody in a direct way some of the pivotal moments and tensions in the story. When you cast something, you are grappling with the mold and the watery matrix, trying to control and transform this liquid into solid form.

I love what you say about how the frog swings between laughter and apathy. In this way he embodies a huge philosophical and political “problem” — the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Can you describe an example where you have actively considered this dynamic in a built work, to your pleasure?

Architecture, even more than other creative pursuits, should intertwine aesthetic value with ethical value. What is a Bob Dylan song if you take away the voice or the message? One cannot exist without the other.

You can find this relationship in many of our projects, even the smallest ones. Our benches in Guatemala City, or our beehives in Oslo for example. The benches we designed were unique objects, but built by local craftsmen and decorated by local artists. The benches were deployed around the city in public spaces to help spur public interest and encourage people to be vested in their city’s public spaces, and to take pride in place. Our beehive project is meant to add additional aesthetic value to beekeeping. One third of the world’s food production depends on pollination, and bees play the largest role. Attracting people and bees to a beehive is just a small step in the right direction.

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: Tiddalik the Frog,” Places Journal, December 2016. Accessed 09 Dec 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/161219

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