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China’s museum of ‘art architecture’ July 24, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture, Museums.

Part of the extensive program organized by Holcim for guests attending its  awards ceremony in Beijing was a visit to the Commune by the Great Wall.

wall_house.jpg  BAMBOO Wall House by Kengo Kuma of Japan takes bamboo scaffolding to the 21st century. Bamboo is combined with hard-edged architecture, evoking the new Asia.

The last time I was in Beijing was in 1970, during the drab Chinese years when everyone wore uniforms. Each time our group arrived in a new city, we would almost immediately be hauled to the nearest commune, made to walk single file through rows of healthy vegetables fattened by night soil whose aroma stuck to everything -farm, buildings and, most of all, our skin and clothes. At the end of each commune day, we all smelled like, well, a bucket full of night soil.

Each commune visit ended with our drinking endless cups of tea, seated drowsily in overstuffed, velvet-upholstered, threadbare furniture with overstuffed arms and backrests covered with freshly starched, white, crocheted doilies. There we listened to many “short introductions,” extolling the virtues of commune experience as a backbone of communist society.

Expecting more of the same, I tried to get out of going to the Commune by the Great Wall. My hosts were firm. This was a “new” kind of commune, they said, something they thought the Holcim guests would like, and flatly insisted that I come. End of story. When I got there, I was totally unprepared for what I saw.

Clubhouses > The commune turned out to be a museum of the “Art of Architecture” with 11 houses and a clubhouse designed by architects from different Asian countries. Constructed on a voluptuous, forested 8-sq-km site in the beautiful Shuiguan Valley on the hills next to the Great Wall, it was close to two hours’ drive from Beijing, the development won a Special Prize awarded to an “individual patron of architectural works” at the 2002 Biennale di Venezia.

If it were not for the view of the Great Wall, an endless, undulating strip following the mountaintop topography above the development seen from every house, the ultra-contemporary Commune architecture gives no clue of its being located in China, although paradoxically each structure borrows its identity from the Great Wall.

There is a dialogue between two monuments-the Great Wall, probably the monument most identified with China in the world view, and a new monument, the architecture museum of the Commune by the Great Wall proclaiming China’s new commercialism and globalism.

Structures are labeled “Distorted Courtyard House,” “Furniture House,” “Cantilever House,” “Shared House,” “The Twins.” Architecture is taken seriously here, but is of uneven quality. Each structure presents itself as an Asian tour de force designed along the lines of the latest architectural vocabulary. The houses, ranging from approximately 300-700 sq m, share the same construction materials-stone, wood, glass, steel and raw concrete.

“Suitcase House,” a wooden box jutting impossibly off the mountainside seems not to be anchored to the soil. Its vast main floor provides different levels for living activities that reveal themselves upon activating pneumatic floor panels that rise or drop, allowing hidden activity areas to come into view.

Bamboo edifice > Inspired by traditional bamboo scaffolding still common in China, the “Bamboo Wall” house explores bamboo poles as finishing material. A forest of bamboo covers most surfaces, enclosing a large glass-covered area, while a pattern of shadows is cast on the dark-gray stone floor by light filtered through bamboo screens on the walls.

The 12 structures are uneasy neighbors. Each elbows the other in an obvious attempt to stand out as the most ultra-contemporary in the development, superhouses catering to the emerging breed of super Chinese.

The Commune by the Great Wall is a luxury development anchored around a five-star hotel. Most of the houses can be rented out for short visits. Eventually the houses will be replicated elsewhere in the valley and sold.

It is another of the many architectural showpieces designed to show the globe with a vengeance that China has moved out of her colorless past at blinding speed and collided with the 21st century.

The developer, seeing itself as a patron of architecture that embodies the spirit of experimentation, states that the purpose of the architecture museum is “to influence a whole generation of architects, developers and consumers in China, and to contribute to the history of architecture in our reborn ‘young’ country.”

Totally and appropriately hidden from public view, the elite development proclaims China’s new commercialism. The hip Commune turns its back on issues like economic or social freedom, architectural innovation versus cultural identity, “progress” versus the systematic destruction of old neighborhoods and the subsequent loss of the traditional way of Chinese life.

Reinvention > “After 50 years of Communism,” writes Zhang Zin, Commune developer, “China is reinventing herself socially, economically and artistically… real-estate developers are building ‘dream houses.’ The frantic level of energy and the huge amount of construction happening in such a short period of time has given China almost no time to search for her own contemporary architectural identity.”

On the other hand, the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Architecture winners were another breed of architects who took the time to search for China’s contemporary architecture identity. Each of the four winning architects looked at the process of contemporary Chinese architectural reinvention as a way to improve the lives of ordinary citizens rather than the privileged market of the Commune developer.

The winning Chinese entries responded sensitively to China’s heritage and traditions. Their schemes were products of detailed searching into their national architectural identity and rapidly deteriorating urban conditions. Each entry saw architecture as a way to improve living conditions while respecting cultural traditions. None of the award-winning schemes was heroic like the Commune’s structures. Instead of calling attention to themselves, they focused on benefiting people by continuing traditions.

What we’re seeing is the new coming to light after the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. It’s probably the light that will lead the new China into the 21st century.

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