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Big Top for big moments

Charles Holland and Elly Ward

Many more of life's significant events could be celebrated in the revolving, portable registry office imagined by Charles Holland and Elly Ward

What happens in a registry office? Well, y’know, just the big stuff: births, marriages and deaths. These are the three fundamentals that the state recognises and requests that we legally register. Of the three, only marriage is a choice which begs a question: why only this? And while large amounts of time and effort go into marriage ceremonies in registry offices, the significant marking of births and deaths occur elsewhere. 

Should we register other things too? And if we did what would they be? Would we tolerate the state’s involvement in marking other aspects of life, like an important job promotion or a particularly good night out? Of course, it doesn’t have to be the state that does it. In these privatised, neo-liberal times, one could imagine a whole range of outsourced, semi-official ceremonies offered by private companies to mark life’s most significant moments. It’s the sort of thing that Archigram’s Mike Webb speculated on all those years ago with his Dreams Come True Inc project, a kind of cradle-to-grave commercial service.

We prefer a more collective sense of celebration however and recognise the registry office as a fundamentally civic building typology. Our ordinary registry office can be hired to mark the public celebration of any of life’s significant – and seemingly insignificant – events, from a child learning to ride a bike to reading all of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Big events that have no obvious sense of release, such as the feelings of loss felt by many following the UK’s vote to leave Europe, could be recognised as a public outpouring of grief and recorded as such. 

Our registry office can be hired to mark the public celebration of any of life’s significant events, such as a child learning to ride a bike, or post-Brexit outpourings of grief

Formally, our office takes the form of a large, circular drum. The drum revolves slowly, at walking pace, which means that you can join it at any point. The exterior is like a continuous colonnade, with openings all the way around sheltered under an awning. Once inside, sliding screens allow the interior to be divided up like a cake, the size of the slice depending on the significance of the occasion. In the centre is a smaller drum containing the registrar who issues the certificates. This element is stationary so that the certificate is signed when he or she appears in your segment. The rotation also gives a time-limit to ceremonies and thus avoids ponderous self-indulgence or over-long speeches.

The roof is made of striped canvas formed into a domed cupola to give a sense of occasion. When the ceremony is completed, the roof rises up to mark the moment, like someone tipping their hat. For a small additional cost it can be made to spin round. Though simple, the building has a sense of celebration about it as well as an acknowledgement of life’s fleeting qualities.

The whole building is intended to look a little like a centralised Renaissance church, mixed with the feel of a fairground ride or a circus Big Top. It could be made from anything, but we have shown it with a timber frame clad in painted timber boarding. It is like a small, do it yourself version of the Colosseum in Rome. And like that building it forms an amphitheatre. There are banked seats around the edge, and a viewing gallery for the public around the perimeter. Visitors are allowed to stay for a full circle which means that for those of us with nothing immediate to celebrate, we get to vicariously join in, a bit like Facebook but without the photographs of babies in sunglasses or somebody’s lunch.

We imagine that the whole thing is moveable so that ceremonies can take place in different locations: in a town square, on a hillside, or at the back of the car park of the Nag’s Head Pub. It is a travelling registry office for significant occasions, available to all, for free, as an important civic service; a source of joy or commiseration or merely public record.


Charles Holland and Elly Ward are directors of Ordinary Architecture