Fairy Tale Architecture: Monkey King

The brother-sister duo of writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer curate a series in which diverse architects explore the intimate relationship between the domestic structure of fairy tales and the imaginative realm of architecture.

“The Falling, Hsuan-tsang Saved by the Old Man (The Journey to the West, 11)” [All images by SO-IL]

Fairy tales have transfixed readers for thousands of years, and for many reasons; one of the most compelling is the promise of a magical home. How many architects, young and old, have been inspired by a hero or heroine who must imagine new realms and new spaces — new ways of being in this strange world? Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming.

— Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer

“Arrival at the Cave, Loudness of Monkey (Stone Monkey King, 1).”
“Arrival at the Cave, Loudness of Monkey (Stone Monkey King, 1)”

Monkey King

The 16th-century Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, written during the Ming Dynasty, is considered one of the Four Great Novels of China. Known by many other titles — including Monkey, The Adventures of Monkey, Monkey King and Dear Monkey (a version for children) — it is highly regarded by Chinese readers.

Monkey is said to be based on a true story. A famous monk traveled from China to India to find the holy book, returned to his home country, rewrote the book, and thus introduced Buddhism to China. In Monkey this history is translated into a fairy-tale novel with an avant-garde structure: 100 parts comprising supernatural tales, monster stories, “popular beliefs” (what we might today call urban legends) and superstitions, as well as straight history.

It is a real page-turner. A Monkey King born from a stone can transform into 72 other things: bug, bird, beast of prey, tree and so forth. As such, he is his own Trojan Horse — he can sneak into anything, anywhere, right into the belly of an enemy and destroy him from the inside out. He travels 180,000 miles as a cloud in one crazy loop! He’s a bird, he’s a plane — even Superman can’t do all the things the Monkey King can do.

The plot continues rivetingly. There’s a journey to hell. Pills of immortality discovered, refined. Crystal eyes. The novel comes to a triumphant end with the Monkey King, Buddha, a cowardly pig and a former sea monster journeying west.

One wonders if Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, ever encountered Journey to the West. This wonderful adventure story has been adapted for stage, opera, film and children’s books, and the image of the Monkey King appears frequently in visual art, sculpture and advertising motifs. Here it appears in an architectural design by Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu (SO – IL).

— Kate Bernheimer

“The Falling, Hsuan-tsang Saved by the Old Man (The Journey to the West, 11),” detail.

Three Questions for SO-IL from Kate Bernheimer

What was it about this fairy tale that drew you to it as an architect? A childhood memory? An image?

It’s a story everyone knows in China. We all grow up with it. And the character of the Monkey is specifically humane. It embodies many of the character traits of a growing mind. Carelessness, vanity, loyalty, fragility. The Monkey King encounters seduction, irrationality, strength. … Everyone can identify with his journey to the west as a journey to adulthood.

Was there anything in the fairy tale that presented a specific problem for you from a design perspective, and how did you solve that problem?

I particularly like the scenes where he’s seduced by evil spells. They often happen in an environment where illusion is part of the experience, and the spatial properties are not so easy to grasp — like a crystal cave or an enclosed valley. It’s interesting to think of space in such phenomenological terms.

Where would you like to see your design built? Who would be the ideal client — real or imagined — to acquire the plans and execute them?

In our very life: The story requires you to suspend what you think you know, get lost, and find a way out another way. So the client can be anyone.

“Deliverance of Monkey (Tripitaka Takes a Discipline, 12)”

About the Series: Fairy Tale Architecture

Places’ ongoing series on fairy tale architecture is curated by writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer.

Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: Monkey King,” Places Journal, December 2012. Accessed 09 Dec 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/121219

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