A few months ago, we announced a new kind of architecture competition, Blank Space, which focused on storytelling. The first theme was “Fairy Tales” and we couldn’t wait to see what the winner would come up with. The winner is actually a team—long-time friends Nicholas O’Leary and Kevin PH Wang—whose winning entry was entitled “Chapter Thirteen” and inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice [in Wonderland]. Their dark interpretation of the story takes the form of a suicide note, and its visual counterparts are a set of five oil paintings done by Nicholas consisting of just red, ochre, black, and white. Do I have your attention yet?
The paintings depict Alice, now in her 20s, and her “Wonderland” world as a contemporary city that’s somehow merged with nature, so you’re not quite sure what or where it is. This was intentional—it leaves everything open for interpretation.
But first, why choose Alice? Kevin and Nicholas say “not only does the character immediately become familiar to the reader, the world she inhabits can be free of all preconceived logic. Allowing architecture to be more than it could ever be in our ‘real’ world. As a device, Alice was necessary for both the fairytale and pushing architecture to its limits.”
In the story, Alice begins by saying:
This is not the world I grew up in. A chess piece pinned on a two hundred square foot white box. Bounded. Absolute. Unrelenting walls inexorable after the hours I stare.
She goes on to talk about doors, barriers, blank walls, metal bars… and as you read it you start to see the interplay between architecture and the body, intentional nods to architectural theorists like Descarte and Kant… cleverly done. The blank slate that Alice mentions seems to be less of a true “blank” space but more of a naive, uninfluenced view—one of innocence.
The architecture, Nicholas and Kevin explain, was integrated as all architecture is: to provide shelter, light, warmth, etc and not just something beautiful to look at—it’s less about impressing people with beautiful pictures of buildings and more about presenting it as it functions.
They explain: “‘Chapter Thirteen’ clearly takes an extreme view of the contemporary city. A view that is needed to push someone off the edge. The story shouldn’t be taken as an attack on the state of the current architectural environment, even when Koolhaas has raised his concerns. The story however intends to reinforce the idea that an architect’s job doesn’t stop at the design. Architecture is for people, it affects those that live in them, perhaps also those that build them.”
I love that Kevin and Nicholas collaborated on this creative project while living in entirely different countries, thanks to the Internet. Nicholas is currently living in Norway to master his art in architectural representation at MIR and studied painting under many artists along the way, most recently with Odd Nerdrum. Kevin is currently furthering his architectural studies in Oxford. They say the collaboration process was actually very easy with minimal compromises. Sketches were made and sent back and forth, storyboards were scraped and endings reinterpreted. Even minor details from Alice’s dress to the smoke coming out of the pipes were discussed. I hope to see more from this duo soon—keep your eye on them!
You can read “Chapter Thirteen” in its entirety alongside its beautiful visuals here.