OSA Review: Once upon a China

By Mihaela Petkova


Oxford Brookes University was delighted to host the first public preview of the newly published book by CJ Lim and Steve McCloy, Once Upon a China. They disclosed that trying to present the richness of the book in a single lecture was as challenging as writing the book itself. But nevertheless, the audience's curiosity was clearly sparked judging by the long queues for obtaining a signed copy. The talk discussed the depth of architecture beyond its visual surface as well as the interconnection between architecture and the richness of culture.


Co-author CJ Lim is a Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the Bartlett School of Architecture and founder of Studio 8 Architects. He has extensive interest in how the resilience of architecture could be enriched by culture and the narratives of literature, history and humanities. Co-author Steve McCloy is a practitioner and co-founder of McCloy + Muchemwa and was one of AJ’s 40 Under 40 Architects for 2020. His work extends from large scale international projects to small design and research projects within his practice.


Once Upon a China book cover

Their Book, Once Upon a China, explores in depth the purpose of storytelling; how it can be a characteristic used to reflect personal beliefs, the ability to be a product as well as a reflection of the social and political system. Every good story starts with ‘Once upon a time’. This nostalgic collection of words transports you to the imaginary worlds of your childhood, where everything is possible and limitless. To Lim and McCloy it is a ‘threshold by which we enter a narrative past’ and it marks the beginning of a tale that may be as fictional as it is real. Not only does it allow our imagination to soar, but connects us to history, a source for learning for our future: socially, culturally, and environmentally. Their determination to put culture, storytelling and identity in the centre of the theme comes from the strong belief that the way forward to producing a holistic environment is by sharing and understanding each other's stories, heritage and values.


The book reimagines the four most well-known Classic Chinese Novels but translates them in a way to make them relatable to 21st century conditions:


Chapter 1: DOMESTICITY- Dream of the Green Mansion- reading of Dream of the Red Mansion

Chapter 2: CONSUMERISM- Journey to the Northwest- reading of Journey to the West

Chapter 3: DEMOCRACY- The Margin of Water- reading of Water Margin

Chapter 4: ADAPTABILITY- Romance of All Kingdoms- reading of Romance of the Three Kingdoms


Once upon a China is a follow up of Lim’s previous work with Ed Liu Short Stories: London in Two-and-a-half Dimensions that portrayed contextual narratives through collage. Once Upon a China uses comic illustrations as a medium to emphasise the necessity for the presence of emotions, humanity and life as a part of architecture. Possibly, partly driven by CJ’s childhood memories of movies and comics in their role of storytelling, Steve and himself have chosen this medium due to its strong ability to concisely communicate ideas. Inversely to the traditional method of portraying architecture, comics do not exhaust the narrative but allow you to interpret it in your own manner without using verbal or written explanation.


Chapter 1: DOMESTICITY. Lim presented two key notions of traditional Chinese architecture that are vital actors in the neighbourhood setting. One is Yaodong - a type of earth shelter that is an example of a passive, environmentally sustainable vernacular architecture. The second precedent is known as Hutong, described as the ‘in between spaces’ of alleyways and courtyard houses that house a variety of activities, nurturing culture and community. They provide the significance of human interaction in how urbanism and space are shaped. In comparison, Shikumen is an example of a response to the need for housing of labourers in Shanghai in the 19th Century. It exemplifies the weaving of the Western terrace housing into the Chinese urban grain and its susceptibility to the capitalist system. The domestic setting is a backdrop for the first project, presenting a contemporary reading of Dream of the Red Mansion, a narrative of the power of the female gender. As well as in the past and the present, women have always been attentive to the societal structures and cultural interactions in life. In contrast to the original story, the protagonists in the 21st century are the female workforce, formed by rural migrant girls, in the capitalist factories of China. Their extensive knowledge in engineering and manufacturing could be used as a source for the development of sustainable housing in China. The illustrated project is constantly changing in scale and in formation of new architectural tectonics. The house absorbs the emotions of the story’s protagonist and reuses them to ensure the balance in interaction between architecture and environment is not distressed.


Chapter 2: CONSUMERISM poses the questions of the Chinese self-perception; their perception of the Western world and vice versa. The contemporary copy-cat culture, as exemplified by reproductions found in China of a number of Western architectural projects, does not invalidate the Chinese identity but is a physical incarnation of what has been learned from the West . The second story takes place in the Bartlett School of Architecture and its main protagonists are the ordinary studio items that the Chinese students of BSA use to ‘consume’ the architectural education of the UK. These are distorted in time, space and scale. The story speculates regarding the designed imaginative architecture and the architecture of reality that in its consumerist nature is damaging to our environment. ‘There is no right or wrong. Just the consequences of the community’s creative actions.’


Leaving us greedy to explore the central themes of DEMOCRACY and ADAPTABILITY, the authors hinted into the topics of politics and knowledge about culture and community as a path to understanding climate change and our future.

We have already mentioned their accomplishment in presenting such a complicated variety of multidimensional topics, but CJ Lim and Steve McCloy admit writing the book was never an easy feat. However, their aims to cover all aspects of the projects and to portray them in such detail into the comics illustration and narratives, tied together with the aspiration to present an optimistic understanding of the Chinese future was definitely a recipe for an inspiring piece of work.


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