Picture this: on eight square kilometres of land facing the Great Wall of China, eleven villas and a country club designed by young Asian star architects and billed as an outdoor exhibition showcasing the ‘art of avant-garde Asian architecture’. This aspiration would certainly make it an Asian Siedlung of sorts, like the Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart or the Case Study Houses in southern California. Except that each villa, with its privileged view of the Great Wall, will set you back US$ 500,000 (according to the developers). And this amount is expected to increase exponentially with every media report it garners, including this one.
On April 6th 2001, a ground-breaking ceremony was held on the idyllic site in Yanqing County – in a valley with fragrant trees, dense bushes and mountains as backdrop – just one hour’s drive north of Beijing and 10 kilometres away from the Badaling section of the Great Wall. In six months’ time, some US$ 24 million worth of investment will ensure the construction of 11 private villas and one clubhouse containing a cinema, art gallery, a choice of restaurants, a swimming pool and grocery, together with administrative offices, staff dormitory and dog kennels.
Billed by its media-savvy developers, a young Chinese couple based in Beijing, as ‘Collecting the Art of Architecture: Commune by the Great Wall – an avant-garde experimental project that combines architecture and art together’, this development is radical in the way it shrewdly and easily conflates vapid capitalist interests, defunct communist ideology, well-rehearsed excuses for living in nature, thinly-disguised commodification of architecture and the tired rhetoric of architecture as art.
For the conception of these holiday homes for the very rich, 12 young Asian architects (save for one Chilean, who qualified for the honour by having his practice based in China) in the vanguard of architectural circles in their various Asian cities were hand-picked. They include: Antonio Ochoa (China), Chien Hsueh-Yi (Taiwan), Cui Kai (China), Gary Chang (Hong Kong), Kanika R’kul (Thailand), Tan Kay-Ngee (Singapore), Kengo Kuma (Japan), Nobuaki Furuya (Japan), Rocco Yim (Hong Kong), Seung H-Sang (South Korea), Shigeru Ban (Japan) and Chang Yung-Ho (China). The master plan is by Rocco Yim and provides for a further forty houses in a second phase of development.
Shigeru Ban’s design is a development of his Furniture House, in which prefabricated furniture forms the structure of the house, which then is sheathed in bamboo. Bamboo is also used in Kengo Kuma’s design which is conceptually articulated by a wall of closely spaced bamboos. Rocco Yim’s house is a distorted version of the traditional Chinese courtyard house conceived as embracing elements of nature in its hermetic space, and here responding to views and topography. Chang Yung-Ho’s house is ‘split’ in the middle: two rectangular volumes with a space between that brings in the shan-shui (‘mountain and water’, commonly rendered as ‘landscape’), thus blurring the boundaries between man-made and nature. Seung H-Sang’s design of the club articulates his notion of Western and Eastern cultural differences: the Chinese restaurant has 10 private dining rooms, each overlooking an internal courtyard, while the Western-style restaurant has a wall of windows with views out towards the Great Wall.
It was reported on the development’s official website (www.commune.com.cn) that none of the architects approached had turned down the developer’s invitation to participate, even though the fees were low. ‘The design fee was much less compared to one typical in Japan, but the low design fee was not an important issue when given this great opportunity … to explore Chinese construction world,’ said Shigeru Ban.
Several European architects wondered why they hadn’t been invited. When asked why Sir Norman Foster was not approached, the developer said, ‘I don’t know why we didn’t ask him. I like his work very much, but he’s very expensive, he’s too into high-tech. I didn’t want to have to ship in materials from abroad and so on’.
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR
The opposite, European off-the-shelf housing, is also possible in China: it was announced in July that the Dutch firm Kuiper Compagnons, in collaboration with a Chinese and an Australian practice, is to be allowed to build a ‘Vinex estate’ of 20,000 dwellings near Shanghai.