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The Drawing Board

The building that knows its own mind.

The Drawing Board

Sarah had not been articled long, and was in her first post as a registered architect: she was experiencing the usual problems of fledgling designers, who wanted to prove themselves both innovative and capable. The habits of deference were powerful in the firm where she worked, and she was reminded, with tiresome regularity, that she was lucky to be there at all. It was not so much that she was expected to make the coffee, but that she was automatically relegated to the back of the queue when projects were handed out. She was always allocated the low-status ones. At this rate, Sarah thought grimly, she’d be designing toilet blocks for her whole career.

Then her luck changed. A commission came from a female pop star for a “modern Gothic” country house, an entirely new build, sited on the remains of an old castle. It was to follow the same floor plate, incorporate any remaining historical features, and as long as it was the same height as the original, there would be no planning problems.The pop star stipulated that the architect should be a woman, and so Sarah got the job. When the star (who was called Ruby Kiss) summoned her for their first  consultation, her requirements were vague. She used the word “vernacular” a lot, and Sarah gathered that what Ruby wanted was a backdrop to her own stage persona, which was somewhere between Morticia Addams and Fenella Fielding in Carry on Screaming. Ruby probably imagined herself propped against rugged columns, poised on huge staircases, beneath high ceilings, her features mottled by the colour in stained-glass windows. But she also wanted all the modern accoutrements: a jacuzzi, en-suites in all bedrooms, a modern kitchen, raised beds in the garden. So Sarah had a complex task ahead of her.

She began by sketching ideas, preferring freehand sketches and initial development via a drawing-board, before transcribing her final design work digitally. She combined artistic and traditional orthographic techniques with computer-aided design. Sarah  intuited that Ruby wanted asymmetry, but not too much, and some flowing lines: enough Gothic to be picturesque, but not enough for discomfort.  Accordingly Sarah plumped for balance: one turret on either side, one spiral staircase that ran clockwise, another that ran counter-clockwise. There were two secret passageways in her design: one led into the park, and the other into the little churchyard. Both would be nicely whitewashed. Sarah knew very well that ruins and asymmetry were an accepted part of Gothic, but she wished to avoid them. It  seemed somehow inauthentic to make new stuff that looked old. She was no Anne Radcliffe. 

Well, her design progressed apace. A nice combination of sensationalism and practicality. And then Sarah noticed that something odd was happening. Every night she updated and saved it her work. But by the next morning, it had been changed. Things crept in that she had not intended: a moat, a ruined chapel, a massive fireplace. She would have to be more rigorous in policing the programme. It seemed to desire autonomy. This would never do. Sarah had never believed in genius loci, the spirit of the place. She was about to be proved wrong. 

After much work, she felt as though she had cracked the design. It was elegant, with a hint of sublimity, but with little of the terror and anxiety traditionally evoked by Gothic. It was allusive but playfully so, and it was comfortable and civilised beneath the faux-sauvage exterior. Sarah delivered the working drawing packages  to the builders and left for a 6-month project in Oman which had (surprisingly enough) dropped into her lap.  She left  her architectural assistant to run the job on site in her absence. She had expected that he and the builders would consult with her by email while she was away. But they did not. 

When Sarah returned to the UK, she took a train straight to the village where Ruby’s new abode was. It ought to be nearly finished by now. She arrived at dusk, got out of the taxi, and was astonished to see that, against the skyline, the building had battlements and one ruined turret. Neither of these had been in her original design. A loud cawing filled the air, and a huge unkindness of ravens was settling in the oak trees that surrounded the place. Bats flittered and whirled in the near-darkness. The ruined chapel had reappeared, with leaning headstones covering unquiet sleepers. It  looked like an enchanted castle. Oh dear. 

Sarah fled to the village and stayed overnight in the local pub, summoning her assistant and the builders to meet her next morning. They opened the iron-studded door, which swung ajar with a groan.  When Sarah entered the hall, it was much bigger than her design, and had a huge helmet leaning against the balustrade. The tapestry (which she had stipulated should look like Chagall, and have unicorns and violins), instead portrayed monks and nuns in various unspeakable acts. Turning round to face the chief builder, Sarah shrilled: “what the hell happened here?”

He answered that he scarcely knew, that the building seemed to have a mind of its own and that he had never known a project progress at such speed: it had almost seemed to build itself. He showed her the asymmetrical windows, the hidden corridors, the trapdoors. To be sure, when they went upstairs, the rooms did bear some similarity to her original design: there were baths, though the shower-heads were concealed inside dragons’ mouths. But outside, well! No raised beds, no cosy walkways, but broken perspectives and jagged planting. 

What would Ruby say? Sarah trembled to think. But as it happened, she loved it. She felt it gave her extra status to own a place as powerful and strange as this. The parties she could have! The disappearances that could be arranged! The emotional catastrophes that could be staged! The building made her quake inside, and she lived there for a long while. Ruby had intended to call it Kiss Castle. But instead she named her house the Kiss of Death. More of a bite. And as it happened, Sarah did very well out of it all, and gained many new commissions. But none of them so surprising as the Kiss of Death.

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