The 64-Square Grid Design of ‘Through the Looking Glass’


alice chess
“For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country – and a most curious country it was. There were a number of tiny little brooks running straight across it from side to side, and the ground between was divided up into squares by a number of little green hedges, that reached from brook to brook. ‘I declare it’s marked out just like a large chessboard!’ Alice said at last.” (original drawing by John Tenniel)

Painters, sculptors and musicians have long since found inspiration in the complex movement of thirty-two pieces across a chessboard. But writers too have found inspiration in the 64 square battlefield. Perhaps none moreso than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll aka the writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Whereas in the first story, Alice encountered a kingdom of playing cards after falling down the rabbit hole, in the sequel, she stepped through a mirror to find an entirely new wonderland populated by anthropomorphic red and white chessmen.

It makes sense that the two dominant symbols of the story are the mirror and the chess board—after all, the pieces on a board at the start of play are a reflection of one another. But chess wasn’t just a recurring motif or symbol in Carroll’s story, it was, in fact, the basis for the novel’s structure. The story was designed around a game of chess. This is made explicit from the very beginning of the book, when the reader is confronted with a chess problem and the following note: “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”

alice chess problem
You haven’t read Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There until you’ve read it in the original chess.

This opening salvo perplexed readers more than the frumious language of “Jabberwocky.” Although the problem is a sort of funhouse mirror distortion of the novel (or vice versa), with eleven moves roughly corresponding to the book’s twelve chapters, Carroll’s notation displays a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of chess. At best, it was viewed as a careless game, even with the explanatory Dramatis Personae included with early versions of the text that equated every character with a corresponding piece. In response to concerns and criticisms, Carroll included a preface to the 1896 edition of Through the Looking Glass, addressing the opening chess problem:

As the chess-problem…has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace; but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance to the laws of the game.

So while Carroll admits taking some liberties with the game, the logic is, in his view at least, sound. Furthermore, although many of the moves listed in the introductory problem make no sense if taken on their own, when they are considered in the context of the story, a strange logic emerges, a logic based not on the rules of chess, but on Carroll’s narrative. For example, as Martin Gardner points out in an analysis of Carroll’s game in The Annotated Alice, “At two points the White Queen passes up a chance to checkmate and on another occasion she flees from the Red Knight when she could shave captured him. Both oversights, however, are in keeping with her absent-mindedness.” By Gardner’s theory then, the mistakes are designed into the story. The White Queen, who famously believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” also experiences time in reverse, which, from the perspective of a game piece, would surely result in unpredictable movement and a curious perception of the board.

Through the Looking Glass
“Here are the Red King and the Red Queen,” Alice said (in a whisper, for fear of frightening them), “and there are the White King and the White Queen sitting on the edge of the shovel—and here are two Castles walking arm in arm….” (original illustration by John Tenniel)

Another example of narrative’s influence on the opening problem can be seen when the Red Queen puts the White King in check at move 8, but the condition is neither included in the game’s notation nor addressed in the story. However, this too can be explained by considering the rules of both. According to the rules of chess, when a player is put in check, it must be announced. Otherwise, the check can be ignored. Gardner cites an article by artist Ivor Davies, who rationalizes the antagonistic Red Queen’s behavior with evidence from the story itself, noting that the silence was “entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said ‘check.'”

You haven’t read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There until you’ve read it in the original chess.
You haven’t read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There until you’ve read it in the original chess.

There are myriad other connections between Carroll’s story and his introductory chess problem, and perhaps even more interpretations and analyses of said chess problem. But in all the scholarship surrounding Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it’s clear that the story cannot be isolated as a either chess treatise or a children’s story. It’s both. The novel’s structure is determined according to a prescribed series of chess moves; the actions and behaviors of its characters are largely dictated by the limitations and characteristics of their corresponding pieces. But this interdependence means that the pieces are themselves influenced by character traits established in the story. The narrative abides by the logic of the game and the game abides by the logic of the narrative. Lewis Carrroll’s story is quite literally a game-changer.

This article originally appeared on Design Decoded

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The Mystery of 221B Baker Street: Architecture, Fiction, and The Replicating Flat of Sherlock Holmes

221B Baker Street

I’ve recently started writing for Smithsonian’s Design Decoded blog, which explores a new topic every few weeks through a series of interlocking posts that will, we hope, offer a new lens for viewing the familiar. Our current series takes a look at Design and Sherlock Holmes. A brief excerpt from the introductory post follows, investigating the mystery of the many 221Bs Baker Street:

– – –

The mystery of 221B Baker Street is not one of secret passages or hidden symbols. Rather, it could be described as a sort of existential spatial riddle: how can a space that is not a space be where it is not? According to Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson lived at 221B Baker Street from 1881 to 1904. But 221B Baker street did not exist in 1881, nor did it exist in 1887 when A Study in Scarlet was published and Baker Street house numbers only extended into the 100s. It was a purely fictional address – emphasis on was. Time marches on, Baker Streets are renumbered, and 221Bs are revealed.

If you visit 221B Baker Street today you’ll find the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which was opened in 1990 by the Sherlock Holmes International Society. But the Sherlock Holmes museum is not, technically speaking, located at 221 Baker Street. In fact, there is still no 221 Baker Street. When the Sherlock Holmes Museum opened at 239 Baker Street in a Georgian townhouse that likely bears a close resemblance to Conan Doyle’s imagined 221 Baker street, they petitioned the Royal Mail to deliver all letters addressed to 221B Baker Street to the museum at 239 Baker Street. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, which includes a full replica of Holmes’s flat, was also allowed by special permission of the City of Westminster, to actually bear the address 221B – although its physical location is still found between 237 and 241. To recap: a fictional flat in a real city has been made a reality at a fictional address in the real city near the real address of the fictional flat. Confused yet? The controversy doesn’t end there.

[continue reading at Design Decoded]


Visible Cities: Massimo Scolari at Yale

A re-imagining of Massimo Scolari's Dream of a Shadow[“Massimo Scolari, Dream of a Shadow, The Man (2011), reimagined as a vintage science fiction book cover because that’s exactly what it looks like.”]

Italo Calvino did not necessarily listen to everything Massimo Scolari said when he spoke to him about architecture, but the attention of the Italian writer was captured when he learned that the young man was also a painter. In the lives of writers there is always a moment when, confronted by a reader, conflicting imaginaries must be reconciled. The writer is called upon to explain or defend what is, to him, intuitive and personal. But when Calvino met young Scolari on that fateful New Year’s Eve, he was met with a strange request: to depict the Invisible Cities. The obvious problem, which the writer was quick to point out as he politely rejected the painter’s inquiry: The cities were invisible. They existed only within the mind. Yet in Scolari’s pleas, Calvino was able to discern an urgent need that could only be met through a narration of walls and towers destined to crumble and the writer promised to send him descriptions of visible cities, intended to be given form and color. Their construction was sadly preempted by the writer’s death, yet the painter continued his pursuit, conjuring a world of cities impervious to history.

Cities & Cocktails 1

Now I shall tell of Rudolfia, a city formed of stone and memory, whose great cathedral was mined from a mountain beneath the ocean. The traveler who enters Rudolfia must pass through an invisible gateway between the church and its archive, incomplete after more than a century of construction. Upon crossing this threshold, my companions and I found ourselves unknowingly indoctrinated into the beliefs of Rudolfia and welcomed within the sacred edifice where drunken priests led us through labyrinthian chambers designed to retain their voluntary prisoners. After wandering for hours through the sanctum sanctorum, we entered into a ballroom wrought from the most brutal of materials, yet emitting a comforting glow of deep amber and the unmistakable din of scholars in revelry. Surely this was a feast day celebration.

The walls of the cathedral were not adorned with tapestries or colored glass, but with glowing windows looking out toward hidden cities and kingdoms unimagined. They were unlike any places our well-traveled party had ever seen, yet vaguely reminiscent of a builder from the land of Marco Polo. Like Rudolfia itself, the world behind the glass was made of ruins that have somehow slipped the shackles of time; ruins that remain untouched by the ravages of nature and unaffected by the fragility of memory. We saw Building Mountains shape the sky and Ozymandias waiting to be remembered while long-dead painters searched for Biblical cities sculpted from desert sands. Though each view revealed a different city, they shared one mysterious feature: the presence of a single traveler, flying through the air on a strange wooden glider. He was a kindred spirit, of this I was sure, a fellow explorer in service to his own king.

It was said that these windows, these portals through space and time, presented cities imagined by a brilliant architect whose designs evoke both flood and flight, whose life’s work spans centuries that pass in decades. His is a world where thought manifests as pure form and color, destined to remain unconstructed in ours, though no less real. Surely such a place should exist only within the pages of an illuminated manuscript, yet by some mystical transmogrification, they are brought into existence by the presence of the revelers themselves. For in Rudolfia there is a magic, or perhaps a science, that causes memory to be made corporeal. A careless word can conjure ghosts or manifest castles in the air. Such risks are necessary, it was revealed to us in secret, for the great stone cathedral of Rudolfia is built on glass foundations and the clinking of glassware joined with the repetition of incantations reifies the city’s architecture.

As my companions and I departed from Rudolfia, our spirits high and minds cloudy, I happened to glance back for a final look at the massive, brutal cathedral. To my surprise, as the night grew long and the sounds of revelry grew fainter, the cathedral itself began to dematerialize. Where it once stood, a raven glider built from the remnants of a bridge or ship soared into the night sky, its faceless traveler freed from the mind and the page of the architect. A silent, nocturnal herald of The End of The City.

[Massimo Scolari: The Representation of Architecture runs until May 4, 2012 at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery]


A Portrait of a House, excerpts from Absalom, Absalom!

[Robert W. Tebbs, photographic survey of a Louisiana Plantation (1926); via]

I’m currently reading William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! It’s a incredible book. A visceral portrait of a haunted, Civil War era American South. I haven’t finished it yet, so this post is pretty much spoiler-free, but I was so impressed with the depictions of the mansion around which most of the story’s central tragedies unfold that I couldn’t wait to post its description. Known as Sutpen’s Hundred, the 100 acre plantation is imbued with a personality and life that reflects the disposition of its builders and the futility of struggling against the destiny it inflicts upon its unfortunate occupants.


New York by Gehry: A Review In Which Your Architecture Critic’s Personal Issues May Be Interfering With His Job

New York by Gehry

The following post was originally written as an entry to McSweeney’s 2011 Column Contest. It didn’t win. But I had a lot of fun writing it so I thought I’d post it here. As proposed, it was an architectural criticism column written from the perspective of a somewhat emotionally dysfunctional critic who sees his own failures in the monumental structures that obsess him. In the resulting reviews, personal narratives converge with professional critique. Descriptions and opinions of the buildings emerge through seemingly inadvertent revelations of his personal crises and social conflicts. Over the course of the columns, a larger narrative is revealed in which the reader learns more about the critic – his failures, fears, aspirations, and his romantic and professional pursuits. In this introductory column, your critic experiences the five stages of grief –denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance– in his critique of the Lower Manhattan skyscraper New York by Gehry.