Fairy Tale Architecture: The Butterfly Dream

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.

Fairy Tale Architecture, design for Zhuangzi's The Butterfly Dream
[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 Butterfly Dream

My brother asked if I had any stories with flight, sky, or clouds in them. He was apparently weary of how often I assign sad stories to his architecture firm for this series. The last time he asked me for “an uplifting story or a story with trees in it,” I sent him “The Little Match Girl.” After all, it’s got both! The story ends in a colorful hallucination that features a glorious, candle-lit Christmas tree! But apparently, that tale of a dying child wasn’t what my brother meant by uplifting. This time he was taking no chances. He wanted a sky. “But not a dark one,” he said in a very, very stern tone.

There are many elegant translations of the Taoist tale known as “The Butterfly Dream,” but my very favorite appears in Moss Roberts’s Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies, part of a Pantheon series that was sadly discontinued in the last century. I reprint it here just as it appears in the lovely, old-fashioned violet paperback:

Chuang Tzu, Butterfly Dreams, text
From Moss Roberts, Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies (New York: Pantheon, 1980).

This brilliant inquiry — one of the most famous parables of ancient Chinese philosophy — is presented here as a fairy tale. The black-line drawings of butterflies and flowers prettily frame a story about dreaming and waking, illusion and reality, confusion and clarity. Other versions end in the translated line, “This is called the Transformation of Things.”

Many interpretations of this tale connect Zhuangzi’s exquisite meditation on butterfly dreams to a Western tradition of epistemological skepticism from Plato to Descartes. What is the nature of reality? Are we the dreamers, or are we being dreamed? A quantum-physics variation, once presented to me in a bar, suggests that we’re the characters in someone else’s video game. The horror novelist Lewis Carroll was probably bothered by something like that when he wrote the distressing trio of chapters, “Shaking,” “Waking,” and “Which Dreamed it?,” in Alice Through the Looking Glass. (“Now, Kitty,” she implores, “let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear,” but the cat doesn’t answer, just keeps licking her paws.)

Bernheimer Architecture transported the dreamer’s consciousness to a drone.

I must admit, these compelling philosophical and scientific inquiries are about as pleasing to my brain as I imagine it would be to be a small metal sphere in a brutal, never-ending cosmic pinball game. Isn’t there another way we can intelligently read this story? What if the questions it poses are not limited to knowledge about reality. What if we expand the scope to encompass how it feels to be a thinking being. Yes, that’s right. How does it feel? Zhuangzi knew that the feeling had something to do with being transformed.

In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard wrote, “The dialectics of here and there has been promoted to a rank of an absolutism according to which these unfortunate adverbs of place are endowed with unsupervised powers of ontological determination.” Who cares about setting up a series of hierarchies to explain experience, or our selfhood? What if dreams, fantasies, and imaginaries are places — or states of being — endowed with intelligence that can be expressed in no other way? If that is the case, we should promote the emotion of thinking.

The team at Bernheimer Architecture transported the dreamer’s consciousness to a drone, which they flew over our family beach house. They then abstracted all the spatial data to create volumes and spaces rather than points on a map. As my brother described it, they also “took pictures of the drone looking at itself, its shadows and its reflections on surfaces, as it tried to recognize its own existence.” Contemplating these images, one truly feels the transformation of things.

— Kate Bernheimer

Fairy Tale Architecture, design for Zhuangzi's The Butterfly Dream
[Bernheimer Architecture]

Fairy Tale Architecture, design for Zhuangzi's The Butterfly Dream
[Bernheimer Architecture]

Fairy Tale Architecture, design for Zhuangzi's The Butterfly Dream
[Bernheimer Architecture]

Three Questions for Bernheimer Architecture from Kate Bernheimer

What were the questions you tried to work out through this story as architects?

In our first read of the story we were piqued by dual concepts of seeing and of self. When we construct perspectives, at least in the old fashioned Albertian way, we need to make specific determinations, from our consciousness, of location. Of who we are relative to a space, where we are, and what we will be “seeing.”

Station point, perspective, picture plane: these are all rules for the construction of the drawings that architects rely on to tell the story of a project. This compact, seemingly simple story confounded us initially. Do we draw butterflies? Do we draw the mechanics of flying? How do we draw the space of a philosopher’s daydream? Then, in a discussion in the office, it was suggested that a drone could be a kind of modern-day stand-in for the butterfly. Or for Zhuangzi himself. Or both! The equipment’s ability to “see,” or to be seen through, while also being seen itself, from a distance, had reverberations with the deeply personalized and confused and permanently ambiguous self of the Chinese philosopher.


These designs are breathtaking. Can you describe the process of making them — specifically, explain a bit about the use of the drone, the ideas behind that?

So, using a drone (a stand-in for the butterfly), we surveyed a landscape along the Massachusetts coast. We flew the drone somewhat randomly, without thought, to see what the drone can see, and to see the drone looking at itself and back at us. Drones are fascinating tools for seeing — they are controlled remotely, send live views of what they “see” to the controller. But there is a caveat: this view is constantly, consistently, and permanently detached from the operator. It thus throws into question the “self” of the drone.

The drone captures data in addition to photographs or video. Logged geotagging and tracking information can be downloaded and plotted onto standard maps. This process, however, flattens spatial data. In order to better understand the exact movement of the drone (beyond cardinal, directional information about the path of the drone, or the velocity and acceleration of the gadget, or wind velocity impacting the flight) one has to re-map, or make spatial, the numerical data.

[Bernheimer Architecture]

The drawings of this story consist of data from the flight of the drone. These data were converted into a flight path, and then a flight-space. This space was then extruded into shapes and volumes, illustrating both the act of flying as well as the act of (detached, remote) seeing. Images of the path are imagined as images of the drone itself, and then unfolded as a quasi-landscape, not drawn from the actual aerial images of the Massachusetts coast but rather of the path, space, and sweep of the drone’s movement. Lastly, these spatial mappings were rendered digitally, the flight data converted in rendering software into a play of light and space. An animated drawing collects numerous paths into one as a loop, a delineation of the mathematical and accurately recorded space of the seeing and the seen.

Architect, butterfly, drone … discuss.

Despite all this, it is still unclear to us whether we are the drone or the drone is us.

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 Butterfly Dream,” Places Journal, December 2018. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/181219

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