Epistolary Architecture: The Art and Crimes of Jane Doe


The epistolary format—a story told through a collection of artifacts (traditionally letters)—has a long history in literature, yet its exploration in architecture remains nascent. This project leverages the epistolary format and uses it to construct a narrative around architectural subjects: the heists of the fictional burglar Jane Doe, and her uncanny crimes which comprise a kind of spatial performance art. This project gathers diverse epistolary media under the umbrella of evidence, a designation that flattens diagrams, clothing, models, photographs, and notes together literalizing the reader’s role as a sleuth of epistolary works.


What prompted the project?

The project grew out of the structure of Sarah Hirschman’s studio “Little Worlds” which began with exploring various non-disciplinary and craft techniques to produce miniatures. Students were then asked to deploy these techniques to construct a narrative in the epistolary format. In developing our narrative, we were inspired by Geoff Manaugh’s Burglar’s Guide to the City to engage with the heist genre, exploring how burglary is a uniquely architectural, or, in the Matta-Clark-ian sense, Anarchitectural act.

What questions does the project raise and which does it answer?

The project asks what is the narrative potential of architecture. We prefer to think of the project as responding to this question rather than providing an answer to it—a more open ended conversation. In responding to this guiding question the project seeks out alternative mediums to bolster the architect’s representational toolkit and continues to explore crime’s architectural reframing begun by Manaugh and others. The Possible Mediums book describes narratives as graphic stories of real or fictional architecture involving sequential arrangements of language, animations, illustrations, and props. The epistolary format reconciles these various mediums of representational techniques in a non-sequential format, being less like a comic and instead pointing towards something that we feel is more active, exciting, and explicitly architectural.

What is for you the power of narrative within architectural discourse?

We feel that this question is best summarized through a quote from an email we exchanged with John McMorough while we were working on the project where he described how “it (narrative) is sort of everywhere and nowhere (everywhere in that arguably all architects tell stories, nowhere in that it is not as frequently underlined as its own topic)”. Narrative’s power is therefore similarly invisible yet omnipresent, nascent and unharnessed, we are still trying to figure it out!

How does the project approach the reader/viewer as an active or passive voice?

Our hope for the project is that it activates the reader, being ambiguous enough to force the act of interpretation, while being specific enough to give them the tools and evidence needed to construct a narrative. The question of active/passive voice for us also brings up the question of point of view. We layered multiple points of view into our representations: the assumed omniscience of the projective drawings of the tools, Jane Doe’s own view looking through HVAC vent grates in the peephole dioramas, and the security guard encountering his own reflection in a reference to Velázquez’s Las Meninas when entering the post-heist scene —this project has multiple audiences and subjects.

To what extent does the project rely on the subjective reading and assembly of the individual piece of evidence?

We began to realize the extent of the subjectivity of our project during the final review when our jurors each decoded and reassembled the project in very different ways leading to debates over meaning and interpretation that we felt were incredibly productive. Even elements which were meant to be the most direct in framing the project—such as the below note by Jane Doe which explains her motivations for the heists—inspired a variety of interpretations and responses.

To Whom it May Concern,

You may have noticed that some things are missing. I took them. You might not believe I did, as I am not what you would typically consider a likely suspect for the flawlessly executed burglary of an elite museum. I am a woman—young, transient, and trapped within the gig economy struggling to stay afloat. I have been denied access to the richness of the traditional domestic interior because of contemporary economic structures, so I transgress to acquire the material trappings that are otherwise withheld. I have the kinds of vivid experiences that are only possible when you break the rules. I dream of being surrounded by precious historical objects in my personal mobile wunderkammer, of sleeping inside the mouth of a T-Rex skull, of being where you don’t expect me, of leaving traces that confound you. You think I told you too much? Come and find me then…

Not yours but all my own,

Jane Doe

How do these articulate and shape unique readings of singular narratives?

We built in clues towards different interpretations of the project such as a moments where Jane Doe’s blacklight handprint doesn’t reach above the top of the window frame as an index of her height (5’ 2”) yet she is simultaneously large enough to bore through the floor of the Sir John Soane’s Museum floor. During our final review Dr. Dora Epstein Jones picked up on these incongruities, collapsing them into a reading of Jane Doe as a scalable subject, or perhaps a crew of multiple people. An important precedent for us was Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies, a series of miniatures used in the development of forensic science which trained police in investigative tactics in the pursuit of a single “right” singular answer while still providing interpretational flexibility.

What informed the choice and the framing of these elements?

Equal parts intuition and collaborative criticism. Working in a pair meant that each choice was debated and criticized from various angles until we agreed on how to move forward.

What role do you as designers play within the design and assembly of the epistolary work?

The first and primary role we have in designing an epistolary work is to choose the mediums the project is going to be described through. If we are to accept Marshall McLuhan’s argument that “the medium is the message” then this initial selection is the most important stage in our process. Some of the mediums we chose were notes, clothing, dollhouses, dioramas, and security camera images. Being recently exposed to Michael’s Osman’s writings on paperwork we wonder how the project might have differed (and perhaps improved) if we told the narrative through mediums such as receipts, contracts, and change order forms.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?