Few addresses call to mind the same imagery as 221B Baker Street in London. Sherlock Holmes’s famous address evokes the smell of tobacco, the sound of a violin, and the sight of a meerschaum and a deerstalker cap. Yet the doorstep itself is a thing of fiction: Although it has since been built to capitalize on the fame of the world’s greatest detective, Baker Street ended at 85 at the time Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his stories. What the doorstep or the building looked like in Conan Doyle’s mind is anyone’s guess.
As part of the Museum of London’s new Sherlock Holmes exhibition, U.K.-based architecture firm Seán & Stephen collaborated with Neu Architects on the Mind Maze: a series of six vestibules, each one a mystery-filled representation of Sherlock Holmes’s doorstep as it might have appeared during a specific case: It’s up to visitors to solve the mystery of which 221B Baker Street represents which specific Sherlock Holmes story.
We don’t want to ruin the fun, but here’s an example. One of the stories that is represented in the Mind Maze is The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, perhaps the most unique Sherlock Holmes story in that Holmes himself, not his partner John Watson, narrates the event. In the story, Holmes must solve a riddle in the form of an ancient family ritual to help solve the disappearance of a missing butler, ultimately deducing that it contained measurements referring to a secret cellar, where the corpse of Brunton was eventually found. As part of the Mind Maze, this riddle has been reinterpreted as a graphical map, which can be found printed on the side of one of the vestibules, along with the text of one of the riddles itself.
That’s just one of the mysteries, of course. The others are similarly marked by arcane symbols, snatches of text, or mysterious objects. The designers tell me that they chose stories based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s list of his own dozen favorite Sherlock Holmes tales, which they then weeded down to just six based on whether or not the stories featured “bold and eye-catching” props and plot elements. They then used these props and plot elements as clues to be dispersed through six multicolored plastic vestibules, each one designed to be easy to move and wheel out of the way by museum staff when not in use. When properly decoded, these clues will help Holmes aficionados figure out exactly which 221B Baker Street from which Sherlock Holmes story they’re standing in. Saying more would spoil the surprise.
According to the designers, the commission to design the Mind Maze just sort of fell in their lap. Seán & Stephen and Neu Architects originally got together in January 2014 to jointly submit for a different project being run by the Museum of London. “We weren’t successful; not even short-listed,” Seán McAlister of Seán & Stephen tells me. “Fast forward four months, though, and an email comes in from the Museum of London, saying that they really liked our folio and thought it was just right for a new design installation project. This turned out to be the Sherlock Holmes installation.” In fact, when they won the commission, Stephen and Seán had never even read the Sherlock Holmes stories for themselves. (Although they were, at least, familiar with the BBC TV show.)
The Mind Maze can be experienced at the Museum of London as part of the Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die exhibition, running until April 12. Make sure to bring your magnifying glass.