‘Illusions of Grandeur’ – an escape into the realm of imagination

Today we go ‘off road’ with JOHN ‘CHEWY’ TREWENACK, managing director of 3D Studio, Mirage Mahal. Constrained by the limitations of professional architecture, John, better known as Chewy, turned to the “mirror world” of AR and VR for creative freedom.


John Trewenack, Managing Director of Mirage Mahal. Photographer: Kaitlyn Dealy

What were your reasons for leaving the profession?

Firstly, I was frustrated at the bidding culture for tenders. Our firm and others would undercut to get large projects hoping that would be the one to launch them. Making promises that something could be delivered cheaper than it should, faster than it should, devalues the profession as a whole and puts unnecessary strain on the business and everyone in it. It shouldn’t be normal for everyone in the office to be working late nights all the time because that’s the only way to get by. 

Secondly, University was an amazing creative process, and that creativity and problem solving gets its wings clipped as soon as you start at a new firm, unless you get lucky and work somewhere where they allow their grads to design (not sure if this exists). Alternatively, you can start your own firm (don’t), or swallow your pride and wait your turn (that’s basically the mantra). I don’t have a solution to this problem, but it kills your passion for architecture unless you adore those above you and their work.

Early Testing for a VR bike race by Mirage Mahal. Song: Lilith’s Club by Noisia. Video: Mirage Mahal

Would you say you’re comparable to Soviet ‘paper architects’ Brodsky and Utkin? Did you branch into AR and VR as a means to escape the reality and restrictions of architecture?

Amazing, I love that comparison. Brodsky and Utkin were victims of creative oppression from the state, and I guess I’ve felt creatively restricted as a by-product of industry desperation. There are definitely some modern (and much less nefarious) equivalents to which you could draw a correlation. They escaped to the freedom of paper; virtual reality might be my hill with a hole to die on.

Did you have different expectations of the profession when you first started?

I didn’t think it was as popular a career, because I knew it wasn’t supposed to be high paying. If that were true, it follows that there would be plenty of work for someone with a passion for it, that it wouldn’t be hard to achieve creative satisfaction for a trade-off of mid-range salary. I had identical conversations with engineering friends about the difficulty of finding a job after graduation, but they were at least looking at 80K salaries. A lot of my friends got half that, some didn’t even get minimum wage for full-time work. If you’re not going to get a creative outlet, have little say in the design, and get paid a pittance in some instances, I can see why many grads make lateral career moves.

Would you frame your architectural education positively, even though you didn’t end up working in the profession?

Everything that I’ve done up to this point led me here, so I’m glad and privileged to have completed my architecture degrees. I adored studio, possibly too much in the end, as the removal of that once out in the field made the rest less enjoyable. Architecture as an education I think is amazingly universal in the design world which is probably why we see so many successful graduates in different fields. The lessons can be applied across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Walking away from the profession is not walking away from the knowledge.

Does architecture still have a big influence over your other creative endeavours?

I think the process of design is universal. Everything I learnt in architecture conceptually I find myself applying to everything I do. Justification, detail consideration, fastidiousness, design logic, aesthetic language, and so on. Architecture is just a big problem solving tool. You develop your own mental algorithms along the way which define your personal style. And that’s the way I view any design problem.

Would you ever return to the profession?

Absolutely. I’ve had the chance to design some small things personally, and loved it. I’ve taken a gamble that I probably won’t, though, as my procedural knowledge becomes less relevant every year I’m out of practice.

“We have the ability to create and test whatever ideas we want.” – John Trewenack. 3D Render: Mirage Mahal

John Trewenack, April 2019. Interviewed by Emily Lim. All images were supplied by John and used with permission.

Find more at:

Website: miragemahal.com

Instagram: @mirage.mahal

Side Hustle: @pongslab