Curious and Curiouser!

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad,” said the Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll’s classic 1865 novel. Alice’s Wonderland is a space full of peculiarity, wonder and magic. It is a place full of madness, where animals can speak and potions can make you megalithic or miniscule. It is a journey of self-discovery and figuring out the question that torments us all most: who or what am I?

It’s a place without boundaries that simply questions the way things are done in the real world. For people such as Alice, where in our realm, beyond the world created in literature, is Wonderland? Does every person have their own? And could we as architects provide spaces throughout the city for people who need an escape to this Wonderland from time to time?

In this awfully sane world of punctuality, maturity, obligations and proper behaviour, where is the space where one can be tardy, immature, liberated and improper? Where can we be mad?

Owning your ability to be mad is a key part in figuring out who or what you are, in discovering your own self. How architecture can support that is a question which should be raised within the profession. Where can spaces for madness be created and what are they? Are they little corners in buildings that you can drown yourself in and enter an abstract and intangible world full of curious thoughts, or is it a physical experience, a journey much like Alice’s?  

If we strip away all the words in the book and focus wholly on the landscapes depicted, the various rooms Alice goes through, the portals and the scale of the spaces she progresses across throughout her journey, we are left with glimpses of elements familiar from our world which are experienced in a radically unorthodox manner. The garden within the book is not just any garden – it is the “loveliest garden that ever was”; the portals take you to a completely other world underground, a door is no longer just a door but a gateway to a different dimension, it has purpose beyond the use of simply separating two rooms. It is this venturing into the unknown that elicits such substantial emotions and makes difference between experiencing a space and merely using a space. Every element has been given a magical twist and not all is what it seems. This sort of imagination within architecture is exactly what is needed when we are at a standstill within the practice of designing buildings and cities and our new direction is not entirely known.

Architecture is a whimsical affair at times: its inherent purpose is to stimulate and inspire a feeling within us. Inside a well-designed space, you should be able to think, to believe, and to truly experience something beyond yourself. As architects, along with everything else we have to technically adhere to, the human-desire for interaction, adventure and metamorphosis should also be something we keep in mind and try to satisfy. Interior and product designer Louise Campbell turned to this idea of Wonderland as a source for inspiration for the IMM Cologne Furniture Fair to create an ideal house of the future. In this instance Campbell brings Wonderland to the users’ home – Wonderland becomes a place the user resides in on a daily basis as opposed to being an escape. The threshold is transformed into a portal to leave the world behind and enter into your own madness. Campbell wanted to play with the complexity and contradictions within the book by incorporating it in the interior and making it open but private, intimate but flexible (Howarth, 2014). She places the bed along the length of a wall for lounging and sleeping, and the bathtub in front of the entrance in the open living room. By doing so, she blurs the lines between what is private and what is not. Another compelling facet of the scheme is the fact that all the utilities used within the kitchen are hung on a white pegboard on display, solemnised in all their grandeur and not veiled by drawers. It’s a commemoration of the underutilised elements in a home through making them more prominent in a space. There is no real division between any of the spaces, you flow from one and its function to another seamlessly. Campbell’s installation challenges the conventional components used to make a quintessential home and turns it into a space full of unexpected features (Mead, 2014).

Alice’s world is built in stark contrast to everything in the real world, which is what makes it so enlightening. It is full of intricacies and provocations. It challenges what we have fundamentally believed to be correct and questions why that is the only way we view the world. This incredibly precocious concept is an opportunity for all designers to use as a modus operandi when stuck and dealing with peculiar matters throughout the various stages of a project. Maybe this is the kind of necessary approach the profession needs to allow designers to address issues in a different manner. Perhaps the key is to embrace the madness, whether it is within yourself, your designs, or the spaces you want to create and confront traditional conventions.