Fairy Tale Architecture: Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky

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.

Visitation. [All images by studio SUMO]

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


Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky

The Nigerian folk tale “Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky” is widely read in American elementary schools. Elphinestone Dayrell’s picture book version, first published in 1968, has beautiful illustrations by Blair Lent. (I immediately recognized his work from Tikki Tikki Tembo, a book I had loved in childhood.) This children’s tale introduces the sun and his good friend, water. The sun visits the water often, but the water never visits the sun. The sun — who seems sad — asks him why; and the water says, “Well, if you want me to visit you, you’ll have to build me a very big house.” So the sun goes home to his wife, the moon, and tells her of the request. Apparently she approves, for the sun builds a very big house, and just as promised, the water visits, bringing along his friends, the water animals and fish and water people and so forth. Now water is knee-deep in the house, and he grows concerned, but the sun and moon assure him the house is still safe. Soon water fills the giant house to the brim, and the sun and moon climb up to the roof. Eventually the water covers pretty much everything up to the sky, where the sun and moon live today. This is a domestic myth about friendship, poignant and bright.

Another version, gathered in Third World Voices for Children (1971), is grimmer. Here the sun and moon are brother and sister, and they happen to come up out of the ground in a village one day. They sleep in a hole in the ground — the story is blunt about this; there’s no stylist’s effort to make this domestic scene pretty. One day, while the sun sleeps, the moon wanders away and is captured by the men of the village. They hang her on spears to light their way through the forest. One of the men falls in love with the moon; he makes a love potion and arranges a “sing-sing.” The moon, back in the hole with her brother, wants — who wouldn’t? — to attend the sing-sing, but the brother threatens to leave her if she does. Then he goes for a walk. The poor moon is so distressed, she throws herself into a cooking pot to be killed. She does not perish, however: it’s cold. She gets out of the pot and jumps to the roof, then onto a tree, and then into the sky. She sails over the head of her brother, who is searching for her, and after someone loans him a rope, he climbs up there to be with her again. A suicidal moon, a rope, and the love of two siblings: blueprint for a fairy-tale scene.


Three Questions for Studio SUMO from Kate Bernheimer

We discussed many possible tales for you to design spaces for — you considered such a diverse, fantastic array of possibilities. In the end, you could not resist the Nigerian tale “Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky.” What was it that drew you to this narrative? A childhood memory? An image? A building you already knew?

The basic elements that support life as we know it are the basis of the narrative: darkness and light and water. Seventy-two percent of earth is covered in water, and the human body is 60 percent water. The house building in the narrative relates to the formlessness of water in the liquid state and its reliance on a container.

We broke down the narrative structure into basic themes: Visitation, Building, Arrival, Displacement:

  1. Visitation, or “Why don’t you visit me?” asks the sun.
  2. Building, or “Let’s build a house for water,” says the sun to the moon.
  3. Arrival, or When water moves in.
  4. Displacement, or The solar system.

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?

We are attracted to the complexity of simple surfaces in the narrative. Three iconic shapes shift in relation to each other, and there is a sense of limits and equilibrium. Earth as a house on which the sun and water lived appeared to be a semantic problem in the narrative. We chose to express the formlessness of the sun and water cohabitating.

Did you consider the built execution in your design? If so, who might execute this? If not, how might you position your architecture within the realm of the unbuilt and imagined?

The challenge was to bring an architectural sensibility to a narrative about the cosmos. The design approach is structural and environmental and touches on the metaphysical. The structure for water that we projected is a bubble structure similar to the Beijing Olympics Water Cube.


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: Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky,” Places Journal, December 2013. Accessed 09 Dec 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/131217

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