Cover image of Soiled, Issue 8, Onceuponascrapers.

Family reads children’s issue of architecture-focused literary magazine. Strongly approves.

Review of Soiled, Issue 8, by Jeffrey G. Dodd


Soiled exists at the intersection of literature and architecture. Let me rephrase that. Soiled owns the intersection of literature and architecture. This artist-led, Chicago-based project, now offering its 8th issue, "narrates a playfully sincere and seriously humorous exploration of oft-overlooked dimensions of our built environment." Each issue is thematized around a different exploration and the works written and illustrated by architects and designers. Issue 8, "onceuponascrapers: architectural children's stories," is elegantly illustrated, delicately told, and intricately woven into one of the most exciting literary magazines I've encountered in some time.

This issue of Soiled offers a mix of family-friendly pieces, all fully illustrated for the younger (and older) reader in vibrant shades of cyan and rust. While none of the pieces in this issue may end up a children's lit classic, each one asks us to consider what the editors' introduction refers to as, " the perceptual misalignment between the real and the imaginary and the vital agency of built matter." And, unlike most litmags, this issue of Soiled allows me to offer a review informed by the young readers in my family. So, we sat down together for several evenings and made our way through the whole issue.

Our family's consensus favorite in "Onceuponascrapers" was Julia McMorrough's "Around the Block" introduces us to Rosie, who favors roundish and curved things like arches and the bus that takes her on a loop around the city, and Doyle, who prefers the clean straight lines of rectangular buildings and is perfectly at home on "Linear Street." This is a wonderful tale of differences bridged by understanding another's point of view, and by the end "they were so happy and enthusiastic that round things and square things could both be fantastic!" Not only is this a classic lesson offered in fun new form, but the easy yet surprising rhyme and the delightfully geometric illustrations were much appreciated by this reviewer and his two young children.

Other pieces in the issue, such as Alex Olson and Milo Krimstein's "A Whole Lot of Ideas," played with classic literary forms. In this case, a collection of limericks telling the story of a girl who wants to build on her plot of land in the city. What follows is a catalogue of famed architects offering their famous dicta to our young heroine. Louis Sullivan tells her that her building should "look like what it's for," Ludwig Mies van der Rohe nudges her toward simplicity, and Jeanne Gang suggests her building should "look like the land." Of course, such a raft of advice is exhausting for anyone. Our young protagonist needs a break if she's to have a breakthrough. And fresh off her rest, she finds the inspiration to break from influence and tradition, making her own mark on the city skyline.

Other pieces commanded our attention for various reasons. "A Friend for Thor" was a surprising hit with the kids. It is a sardonic examination of the relationship between weather and the built environment, through the lens of a lonely tornado on a futile trip through the plains to find a playmate. Unfortunately, Thor's own ferocity makes it difficult to achieve his goal. "This is Pointer" offers kids an interactive cut-and-fold menagerie of computer desktop tools. This was a clear win for my four-year-old. "Grandma's House" presents Agnes and her whimsical visits to, well, grandma's house. As she grows into adulthood, watching her grandma age, Agnes recognizes that the house no longer serves her grandmother well. Together, Agnes and her aging grandmother imagine and, through the power of imagination, rebuild the house into a new home. As children fortunate enough to have an active and engaged grandparent, my children were able to recognize themselves in young Agnes, to consider what it means when their grandparent may be a little slow to get up the stairs, and to talk openly how built things sometimes need to be rebuilt when comfort becomes constraint.

One story in this issue was able to marry a child's narrative with a walk through architectural history. Alex Olson and Milo Krimstein's "A Whole Lot of Ideas," is a collection of limericks telling the story of a girl who wants to build on her plot of land in the city. What follows is a catalogue of famed architects offering their famous dicta to our young heroine. Louis Sullivan tells her that her building should "look like what it's for," Ludwig Mies van der Rohe nudges her toward simplicity, and Jeanne Gang suggests her building should "look like the land." Of course, such a raft of advice is exhausting for anyone. Our young protagonist needs a break if she's to have a breakthrough. And fresh off her rest, she finds the inspiration to break from influence and tradition, making her own mark on the city skyline.

Three pieces in this issue of Soiled are entirely pictorial. Though each provides an imaginative feast that complements the written narratives. Among these, "Desert Friends Help Decorate" is particular fun, as it uses a collage method and plastic toys to offer a wry little tale that hints at the negative human impact on the desert environment. The fun part of these pictorials was watching my kids provide their own narratives, which they inevitably revised when two pages later when a new frame came into view.

A note on design. The last several issues of Soiled have employed a two-color printing approach that, in hands of their excellent illustrators, designers, and contributors, yields a richly textured product. That said, one less appealing aspect of this issue is the choice of typeface, which was at times very difficult to read. Particularly, letter combinations including "w," "M," and "N" were taxing for me and nearly impossible for the younger readers in our home. While a creative design gesture, this typeface just isn't built for extended contact with young readers.

The editors should be taken at their word when they write, "Onceuponascrapers" gives adults license to suspend their presumptions in 'reality' and 'grown-up behavior' in order to envision alternative futures and pleasurable new worlds." Indeed, this issue of Soiled is a gem when it comes to litmag design, and a near-perfect magazine for families with kids or for grown-ups brave enough to think like children.