CODA Architects collaboration - enriching the design process

The poet project - a dialogue with narrative structure

The poet project - a dialogue with narrative structure


The project arose from a discussion we were having at one of our internal design crits where it became clear that as a consequence of presenting our work to clients before we had had an opportunity to fully develop the ‘idea’ of a project, design concepts were losing depth and intellectual rigour.

This observation should be seen in the context of the work we were undertaking at that time that was heavily programme driven and required numerous individuals to be working on separate, but related, work streams on the same project.

Without a clear set of design drivers articulated and understood, it would be easy to lose the essence of a design.

It followed that what was required was a methodology that enabled the ‘idea’ of the project to be crystallised.

The problem was that the short timescales involved and the design team approach to problem resolution required by our clients meant that unless we had a clear idea of our aspirations at the outset, much of the design would become pragmatic and lack artistic or poetic gesture.

So we advertised for a poet:

“CODA Architects in Bristol are seeking expressions of interest from poets who wish to explore the dialogue between poetry and architecture.

CODA aim to gain a poetic viewpoint on architecture, the sites they build on, the type of projects they work on or even the materials they use to help generate alternative responses to these issues when designing.”

We offered a fee of £1000 for the poet engaging in this project.


From over 40 responses to our advert we shortlisted four different approaches and invited the poets to join us to discuss their expression of interest and their view on how the project might work.

Discarding approaches such as workshops on writing Haiku for Architects, stand-alone research resulting in a report on the dialogue between Architecture and Poetry and a poem that reflected on the dialogue between Architecture and Poetry, we elected to ask Kim Patrick to help us.

Her proposal was to engage with us and explore ‘narrative structure’ as an approach to structuring architectural dialogue and while we didn’t know how this would work we were willing to try it; Architects love to talk about design and this approach seemed to work for both of us.

We would gain from the dialogue with a Poet and a Poet would hopefully gain an insight to Architecture.

The notion of working with Artists is not an alien one to CODA:

We frequently engage with Artists and Craftsmen within our designs but it was only when we started work on the Blaise Castle Cafe project that we were exposed to Poetry as an art that could influence a design.

It was the observation made at one of our internal design reviews that Architecture could have a poetic gesture that led to web based research on whether there was a meaningful relationship between Architecture and Poetry.

We felt intuitively that there was; there are many examples of Architects claiming to have been inspired by Poetry such as Richard Meier creating ‘Lyrical’ forms in the Barcelona Museum of Modern Art or of Architects employing poets within their studios to inform the design (Taller de Arquitectura, Barcelona led by Ricardo Bofill with poet Jose Agustin Goytisolo) and other projects where the outcome was felt to be poetic, however the question remained:

Could a poet help an architect gain a poetic viewpoint on architecture, the sites they build on, the type of projects they work on or even the materials they use to help generate alternative responses to these issues when designing?

Kim Patrick Biography (voice
Kim has collaborated with Raymond Yiu and Luis Gomes and Clement Dionet to create My Fatal Plurality.
Kim Patrick graduated from Central Saint Martins, School of Art & Design with an MA in Creative Practice for Narrative Environments.
She has a BA in English at Royal Holloway, University of London and studied Creative Writing at New York University.
Kim was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize for poetry in 2008.
She has worked for poet Kenneth Goldsmith and UbuWeb in New York and currently works for The Arvon Foundation for Creative Writing.


Session 1

The process developed iteratively:

We invited Kim to join us at a key stage crit on one of our projects: It happened to be a project Centralising Speciality Paediatric services for the Avon area at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children (commonly known as by a TLA as CSP).

It was an extremely complicated project requiring work on all floor levels of the existing hospital and with numerous extensions and roof top construction but one that required a clear vision if the project was to read as cohesive once it was completed and responsive to the needs of the child users.

It quickly became clear that having an audience not involved in the technicalities of the project or bound by office norming, our discussions were able to utilise a language and a way of expression we had not used since university: Clients tend not to want to know what Architects really think and so we tend to keep what really matters to us quiet.

We found that Kim was acting as a facilitator in a process where we were challenging our already set ideas of the project and having to articulate our approach in a way that we had lost, which is when Kim introduced us to Narrative structure and the notion that there are only 7 basic stories.


Our discussions focussed on the changes involved with a patient from entry; from the emergency department, through treatment and then recovery and developed a conceptual patient journey based on one of the 7 stories; This one could be the ‘hero’s journey’: Where the hero is taken out of their normal environment, has to undergo a series of challenges, suffering hardship until success and enlightenment are achieved.

This conceptual patient journey was captured in a sketch which was then translated into a more formal organogram.

This was still just an idea but one which could allow us the opportunity to develop the design knowing that all the individual component parts of the project could support and reinforce a single comprehensible vision.

So ended the first session : A second session was set up to review progress and then engage with the way we think about what the building should look like.

Study # 3 of the conceptual patient journey:

The ward is focussed on a winter garden, loaded with memorabilia, to emphasis the feeling of an oasis of calm and help create sanctuary at the end of this journey. At this level the patient will ‘reconnect’ with the outside world by exploiting the magnificent views set against memories of a prior existence .

Session 2

Having defined a conceptual patient journey and embedded in within the plans and sections of the design we chose to concentrate on the elevations as a means of formalising the underlying narrative exploring material, colour and detail

Issues discussed :

Why use red? Why not another colour? Why should the box be gridded? What’s in the box? Why is the box on columns? Why use vertically aligned timber? What does having a roof top plant room in the materials as the patient accommodation say about our view of the patient? How does the building hit the ground, what does that say about the process? What should the windows be like at roof level: gridded to enclose or open to expose?

The questioning slowly tightened the design up so that every aspect of the project supported the narrative of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ including calling the gap between the new and existing building a crevasse.

The final product : without doubt influenced by the dialogue

Now what?

The effect of the dialogue with Kim was both instructive and valuable. It gave us permission to use a vocabulary that we didn’t usually use to free up creative dialogue and insist on a different type of rigour: one where an intellectual assertion was always challenge for validity.

A Conclusion: Whilst Poetry and Architecture may have structural similarities we felt that there was no direct dialogue a state where Architecture and Poetry coexist, however, it was clear that Poetic sensibilities can be embedded within a project if considered early enough to structure an inner narrative of the concept and that these sensibilities were capable of making Architecture richer and easier to understand.

We were sufficiently intrigued with the process that we decided that we should create format for future use; a format for future project engagement using 2 reviews at intermediate stages, with an agenda for the first review to enable a narrative to be considered and to then define what the final meeting should cover.

Having undertaken the process once we then engaged Kim to repeat it, with success, on a second project. We were more prepared to be open to the process and the work for Bristol Haematology and Oncology centre with a wing specifically for Teenagers and Young Adults with cancer is a more legible and stronger work of architecture because of it.