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 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:

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.

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.)