In 2015, we joined forces with Architecture 00. Together, we enjoy collaborating in a shared environment where strategic, urban and social designers, architects, programmers and economists practice design beyond its traditional borders. 00 work with individuals, governments, corporations and communities to solve problems and anticipate change, and to design successful platforms and places. As a studio it aims to reach beyond the design of objects themselves to the social, economic and environmental systems behind them.

The Sorting Castle

This is a research experiment exploring the potential for fictional rational in design proposals through writing. It is a story about a secret institution of bureaucratic kleptomaniacs called secretarians. The story follows one secretarian’s short career at the institution during which time she uncovers certain baffling facts about the institution, its origins, and its perpetuation. Her discovery of the institution, its structure and its building is discovered through her eyes, and so the building designs itself as suits the narrative. An article about the book was published in Blueprint Magazine in August 2009.

Underlying this process is the suspension of disbelief of the linear relationship between clues and what they tell you. Borges imagined a world where it is considered blasphemous to attribute the divine category of being two simple inanimate objects. One of the many implications of this conviction is that a thing may be found provided that it is believed lost, whether or not it has already been found by someone else, or even if it never truly existed in the first place. (“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, from Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges)

Where the thing in question is some object, for example a pencil, it is difficult to evidence this phenomenon in our world. However, when this thing is evidence itself, it begins to gain some familiarity. For example, almost every detective story depends on the reader’s reliable tendency to see the evidence planted before him as proof of misguided assumptions.

Within the context of the storied projects of Studio Weave, this project set out to explore a particular aspect of designing with fiction: that of imagining a place by being led on by evidence found on site. This is a way of imagining, rather than designing a building. It is a method that involves gathering evidence and being swept up by it, letting it play out its own course. This practice had already proved to worked very well for small structures and public spaces, but this project was also to investigate a little whether it might be possible for it to hold together at the scale of a large building.

The project could almost have begun anywhere, on any site. One was chosen on account of it being big and strange and unloved – the defunct post office sorting office in Westminster. It’s quiet and dark and introvert but best of all, it spent it’s whole life sorting things until one day they took away all the things it could sort and since then it’s been patiently waiting for something to do. The building has a place in the city and a potent aura of ideas surrounding it and these elements formed the basis of the story.

The story is told through the eyes of a protagonist who through her experiences working for an institution inspired by the disused Sorting Office and its surround, makes discoveries about the institution and its home. Her process of discovery echoes the design process of deducing the building from clues. In this way, the story correlates with the design process, and is autobiographical. This is further referenced within the story itself in the form of a fairytale allegory to the origins of the institution, nested within the overall story.

At various stages in the writing of the story, the emerging physical design was tested by asking others to make drawings using only the text for reference. (These illustrations are included in the left hand column along with a synopsis of the full story.) Other than these illustrations, the design of the building involved no visual representation, however the text was laid out graphically according to the movements or spatial arrangements described.

Once the story was written, and the design for the building existed, if encrypted within the story, the next step was to somehow translate the design information into a format recognised by the construction industry. Normally this might mean drawings, however for the purposes of this very written project, a written specification seemed more apt.

A building specification systematically describes the physical qualities of every aspect of a building. It methodically outlines the materials and their composition, standards to adhere to (including references to the relevant documents), quality of workmanship, and any other requirements such as colours, structural or chemical testing, dimensions, performance etc. The National Building Specification (NBS) is a standard format for this document. It is organised into sections that reflect the plan of work and within each section are a number of standard clauses as well as room to create bespoke ones. The NBS is a shared language, understood by those working in the construction industry.

A building’s specification can be seen as a kind of fiction, a descriptive aspiration of a building in a specific format. When designing through writing, the specification can be directly derived from the story. This is a kind of translation: from prose into the shared language of the construction industry. As with all translation, the contents are filtered through a new set of conventions, associations, and cultures that offer a particular quality to the outcome. No translation is a mechanical process of substituting corresponding parts, but a process of interpretation.

The process of translating “The Sorting Castle” into a standard building specification consisted of three steps. The first was to describe the basics of the building in the format of the spec, which was done by allowing the spec to take the lead, to ask questions in its own sequence beginning with the groundwork, through the structure, claddings, finishes, and fixtures and fittings. All these questions were answered as faithfully as possible, always referring to the story text. This process gave every aspect of the building a reference code and draft clause.

The second step was to go through the text and cross-reference the clauses to the relevant portions of the text. For example, the following quote denotes clause K40/011 “Suspended Ceilings To Sub-Sub-Chambers Nested Within Sub-Chambers” a sub-section of K40 “Demountable Suspended Ceilings”: ‘The ceiling, on the other hand, had great potential for secrets. The concave surface had been covered with wrinkled paper and reminded me of the roof of a mouth or skin just relieved from a whalebone corset. I could imagine the whole thing might come down and scrunch up exposing some swirling domed library.’ All these quotes were then compiled and their associated reference numbers organised in a database and reordered according to the NBS.

The third step was to take this reordered story and feed it back into the specification. A commentary to the spec that included the quotes and summary descriptions of each section was also included. For example: “K Linings / Sheathing / Dry partitioning: As described above, the building comprises a number of 7m tall concrete chambers. Within these chambers, steel structures further divide the spaces as required by the department. (Each of the 66 Officers heads a department with its own chamber.) Within the steel sub-chamber structure, are sub-sub-chambers or nests or burrows that are usually constructed from timber. These burrows are little pockets of space defended against storage for conversations or study. Sub-sub-chambers can be divided into two categories: those for use only by those within the department, and those for meetings between members of several departments. In general, each department has only one posh sub-sub-chamber for meetings but may have any number of little nooks and crannies that consider themselves sub-sub-chambers. The posh sub-sub-chambers for meetings usually have ‘perfectly tailored linings of storage’ and are generally of more expensive and luxurious materials. Other spaces are simply made from plasterboard, plywood and the like.”

This is a story about a secret institution of bureaucratic kleptomaniacs called secretarians. The story follows one secretarian’s short career at the institution during which time she uncovers certain baffling facts about the institution, its origins, and its perpetuation.

The story begins with Miss Coldrick, having received an offer of employment, trying to make her way to work on her first day however, this is very difficult on account of the city moving and sliding and shifting, especially near the ground. She eventually manages to make her way by walking towards tower after tower, the only things stationary in this swirling environment.

The towers include a church and hall apparently communicating with each other and a wire cage on a traffic island that transports viewers to a lighthouse on a cliff edge

On arriving at work, she is welcomed by Mr Seven-Eighths into a green Porter’s Lodge and then sent home as most of the day has already passed. She is instructed to wait at the station for a particular tower to pass by and to walk towards it in order to reach the building.

On her second day, she arrives via the tower as advised. Her first task is to take the minutes of a committee meeting. Mr Seven-Eighths leads her up and down a narrow spiral staircase that folds back to arch leisurely around itself. The contents of the meeting are fairly bewildering – they are discussing the pros and cons of various categorical systems as alternatives to the current geographical classification system – however they are pleased with her work and so this becomes a regular commitment.

She is always escorted by Mr Seven-Eighths and he tells her that being entrusted with this task is unprecedented for an entry-level employee.

Before one such committee meeting she discovers the room is lined with secret storage; the walls open up to reveal rows of neatly packed records. Other than this she carries out normal entry-level secretarian duties which include copying out and organising parts of the collection and taking dictation from elderly secretarians. She is also given the occasional assignment by Mr Seven-Eighths assisting other secretarians with their work. After a few months, she is asked by one of the committee members if she would minute another committee meeting.

On the day of the new committee meeting, she attempts to find her way to the meeting room alone, feeling that Mr Seven-Eighths may not approve, given how unprecedented he deems her minuting duties to be. Her attempts fail, however, and she finds herself in a gantry-lined dark void with a behind-the-scenes feel of exposed brickwork and heavy velvet curtains. She makes her way down another staircase and is spat outside. She is then escorted by Mr Seven-Eighths who leads her to a different meeting room through a secret doorway in the spiral staircase. This room is curved and pipe-like with a ceiling that seems to be cloaking a swirling domed library.

The meeting is about a location scout, Arthur Foot, who has inadvertently replicated drawings of great significance to the secretarians. Apparently coincidently, this location scout has now turned up as a secretarian. After the meeting, Miss Coldrick asks Mr Seven-Eighths to find copies of the drawings, which he does. She goes to the deserted glass offices off the dark gantry to look at them and recognises them as the towers she used to navigate the city on her first visit. The following week, she takes dictation from a Miss Bernice who tells her a bedtime story about how the earth’s creatures came to be organised into species by the star people who build ladders down from the stars. Miss Bernice remembers this story after seeing an illustration by Arthur Foot on the front of a magazine: Follies Illustrated.

Miss Coldrick takes the magazine back to the glass offices and inside reads the second part of the story where the earth creatures work to build towers up to the star people’s dangling ladders, but fail. Based on this story and Arthur’s drawings, Miss Coldrick hatches a theory that the institution building is at the centre of a network of follies and decides to get in touch with Arthur Foot. Mr Seven-Eighths arranges this and she meets Arthur in Mr Seven-Eighths private study. They discuss his work for Follies Illustrated then meet again the following day to discuss Arthur’s next assignment making visualisations for an article by a regular contributor: Bernard Hoop. Here he is claiming that all the follies in the country constitute a map or legend of something very small. Miss Coldrick believes the folly network is a legend to the geographical classification system that her first committee were discussing. She offers to help the committee with this matter but this results in her being given the sack.

After losing her job, Miss Coldrick travels to her Dad’s. Her Dad is a timetable consultant looking through his old files in search of an old assignment he can base some maths coursework on. It transpires that Mr Coldrick was once employed by the secretarians to do some timetabling work and calculate whether the institution was going to run out of space for its collection.

He also has a box full of boxes nested inside each other which is apparently a model of the institution.

While staying with her Dad, Miss Coldrick receives one of Mr Seven-Eighths’ notebooks in the post. The book details the work of a secretarian who calls himself Bernard Hoop and now apparently lives in one of the towers.

Miss Coldrick returns to the city to pay Bernard Hoop a visit and ask him some questions about his contributions to Follies Illustrated. She, with some difficulty, follows her footsteps of her first visit to make her way to the ostentatious observatory tower. There she meets the eccentric and somewhat frightened Bernard Hoop. The tower is lined with a complicated wooden structure. They climb almost to the top and there sit and drink tea while she tells him of her secretarian experiences and shows him Mr Seven-Eighths’ book. Bernard Hoop describes the institution as secret keepers who have forgotten the secret they’re meant to be protecting. He explains that he writes to Follies Illustrated as a way of protecting the secret. She questions him on the secret itself but he grows agitated. She moves to leave and takes Mr Seven-Eighths’ notebook back then decides to show him one of Arthur’s drawings. This propels Bernard Hoop into a mad rage. She leaves and decides to make her way to the lighthouse where we leave her, securing the secret in a story of her own.