Sunday, May 04, 2008
In Inner Mongolia, Pushing Architecture’s Outer Limits
May 1, 2008
In Inner Mongolia, Pushing Architecture's Outer Limits
By FRED A. BERNSTEIN
ON April 12, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, both 36, could have been working in their architecture office in New Haven, worrying about the darkening economic prospects of their profession. Instead, they were in China, presenting a concept for a 10,700-square-foot villa to a client untroubled by thoughts of recession, and being treated like stars. Thanks to a booming economy in this resource-rich desert region of Inner Mongolia, Mr. Meredith said, "we got a little taste of what it's like to be Zaha Hadid."
Or maybe one of 100 Zahas. Mr. Meredith and Ms. Sample were part of a large group of mostly up-and-coming design teams from 27 countries that descended on Ordos for five days in April at the behest of a local tycoon. Cai Jiang, who made his money in coal and dairy and has lately turned to real estate, had commissioned 100 firms to design individual houses, each large enough to include amenities like servants' quarters and indoor pools, as part of a billion-dollar "cultural district" he is building here.
At a time when housing markets across the West are contracting and American architects' billings are at their lowest point in 12 years, according to the American Institute of Architects, Mr. Cai (pronounced sigh) was offering his guests a rare chance to build big — and paying them, improbably, in wads of cash.
"Basically, Ordos is Texas," explained Michael S. Tunkey, an American architect based in Shanghai whose firm has designed an opera house that, along with half a dozen museums and a boutique hotel, will anchor Mr. Cai's new cultural district.
He was referring to the wide open spaces, the frontier attitude and the seemingly endless flow of money (at least in good times) from natural resources. Ordos has rapidly become wealthy, largely because of huge deposits of coal, the primary fuel for China's economic expansion.
Not long ago, residents of this region 350 miles west of Beijing lived in elaborate tents called yurts. Now, with a population of 1.5 million, many live in homes that would make New Yorkers jealous. According to Bao Chongming, the regional vice-mayor, they have the second highest per-capita income in China (trailing only Shanghai, the country's financial capital) and an annual economic growth rate of 40 percent.
Ordos officials decided that the old urban center, Dongsheng, was too crowded, and set out a few years ago to build a new one, Kangbashi, 20 miles away; its population is projected to reach 100,000 by the end of 2008 and five times that number by 2010. And it is sprouting satellite developments, including Mr. Cai's cultural district.
Mr. Cai, who understands a bit of English but speaks through an interpreter, said he conceived the Ordos 100, as the residential development is called, as a way to raise both the region's profile and the aesthetic acumen of its newly affluent residents. At 40, he knows something about the good life he is promoting: he travels by Harley-Davidson or chauffeured Mercedes-Benz, has a mansion in Baotou as well as homes in Beijing and Shanghai, collects contemporary art and is seldom seen without a Cuban cigar.
Born in Baotou, about an hour's drive from Ordos, he got his start trading cashmere and freshwater pearls to Russians for recycled steel and has since diversified into a dozen businesses, he said, including coal mining and dairy farming.
He is clearly a man who knows how to move quickly. In 2007 he approached Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Swiss architects, to help him build 100 houses. (Thanks to their "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium in Beijing, Herzog & de Meuron are superstars in China.) Rather than design the villas themselves, Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron opted to enlist 100 firms from around the world, bringing in their friend Ai Weiwei, the well-known Chinese artist, to organize the project.
By the end of December, Mr. Ai's company, Fake Design, had e-mailed the 100 teams, inviting them to come to Ordos — and requesting a response within 10 days. Those who did not answer fast enough were replaced by others on a backup list, said Andy Lee, an American architect who works for Fake Design, on the outskirts of Beijing.
Some of the original 100 picks might have thought the invitation was a hoax, especially given that the e-mail messages were sent by a company called Fake and addressed "Dear Mr/Ms Architect." Daniel Holguin, a 37-year-old Mexican architect based in Brooklyn, said that when he first heard about the project he wondered if "it was a kind of joke," and whether there were really 99 others. "But when you're an architect starting out," he added, "you have to consider every possibility."
The list of invitees quickly became a subject of gossip in the architecture world, in part because of its uneven geographic distribution. There are 17 firms from Switzerland, for example, and 9 from Mexico, but only 4 from the United Kingdom and none from China. Mr. Tunkey, whose Yazdani Studio at Cannon Design has designed several buildings for Mr. Cai, said that it would have been better, from a public relations standpoint, if Chinese architects had been included, but the project was moving so fast. "It's like trying to change directions in the Indy 500," he said.
A critic quoted in a British newspaper said the low representation of British architects should serve as a wake-up call to that country's designers. But there was no such concern in the United States, which sent by far the largest contingent: 23 firms — 10 from New York City alone — many with connections to Harvard, where Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron teach.
"It's not a statement about any country," Mr. Herzog said. "We had to rely on our network."
Of the 100 teams that accepted the invitation, 28 flew to Ordos in January, to see the site and to meet the client; they returned in April with models of their villas. (The site plan for the neighborhood was designed by Mr. Ai.) "For young architects who don't usually get to build very much" — even in good economic times — "this is monumental," said Mr. Meredith, who arrived from New York with Ms. Sample and a 1/100 scale model of their villa.
Mr. Cai appeared genuinely interested in the architecture he was shown, studying models with Mr. Ai and consulting with engineers about how to get the houses built efficiently. He estimated construction costs at $30 a square foot — about a tenth of what they would be in a major American city — thanks to the seemingly unlimited supply of workers who leave their families on farms in surrounding provinces to live in dormitories here. (One afternoon during the architects' visit, several workers digging a well on the Ordos 100 site were asked how much they were paid, and shouted back, in Chinese, "Eight hundred yuan a month," or about $115.)
A few hours after the first 28 teams presented their designs, 69 more arrived (a final three were selected later, making an even 100). The five-day junket that followed included trips to the site, a dinner in a giant yurt near Genghis Khan's tomb (Mr. Cai, who is ethnically Mongolian, claims Genghis Khan as an ancestor) and karaoke in the bar of the Holiday Inn, a lavish hotel that bears no resemblance to Holiday Inns in the United States.
At times, as the black-clad architects made their way around the barren landscape, it was hard for some to escape the feeling that the entire event was a kind of performance, with architects as hired players. Last year Mr. Ai sent 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, where they lived on cots during the Documenta art fair. "Are we just performers in another of Weiwei's pieces?" said Keller Easterling, 49, an architecture professor at Yale and a practitioner based in Manhattan.
The effect was heightened by the presence of camera crews — one making a documentary for Mr. Ai, another making a documentary for Mr. Cai, and many others taping the event for Chinese television. Everywhere the architects traveled, their parade of gold-colored Mercedes buses had police escorts, which served no purpose other than to emphasize something that was obvious from the presence of numerous public officials at the Holiday Inn: that Mr. Cai has government support for the Ordos 100 project.
On the third day there was an elaborate ceremony in which the 69 new teams picked numbers out of a box, with each number representing a building lot. For architects used to competing for the chance to build, it was a highlight of the visit, second only to the distribution, on the last day, of cash payments in thick envelopes — $12,500 for each of the 28 initial teams, and first payments of $14,300 for the new ones. (Each firm's fee for the project will total about $36,000.) Mr. Cai said he expected to sell the villas — which he promised to have built by the end of 2009 — for about $1.5 million each. He said he had interest from local businessmen who would use them as residences or as second homes for entertaining clients.
Many of the architects seemed almost giddy to be freed from the constraints they face in their home cities, where historic preservation laws combined with the scarcity of building sites means that they seldom get to design buildings from the ground up. Daniel Rosbottom, a 38-year-old partner in DRDH Architects in London, described that city as "a difficult climate for young architects," and Ordos as "a fantastic opportunity to build a quite substantial building really quickly."
Later, though, at least one of the initial 28 — Lyn Rice, an established New York architect with more experience than many of the others — noted a downside to all the freedom. "If I were approached by a genie and told, you've got three wishes, they would be, one, for a project that moves along fast; two, that I don't need to do construction documents; and three, that I have a client who doesn't worry too much about what I do."
But faced with that reality in China, Mr. Rice remembered that "it's the restrictions that force a project to go deeper" — to become aesthetically and functionally richer and more exciting. Mr. Ai, as the client's representative, had offered "very few comments about our schematic proposal" in April, Mr. Rice said. Without that kind of client pushback, he added, "you feel a little naked."
Others among the 100 raised different issues. Some said they felt uncomfortable being used by Mr. Cai to draw attention to a vast real estate development, of which the 100 houses are only a small part. (There will eventually be 2,500 residential units, he said.) Others said they felt as if they were there, if not as performers in an Ai Weiwei piece, then to entertain Mr. Ai, who clearly relished the chance to conduct an orchestra of 100 architects-of-the-moment. Mr. Ai, whose art works sell for millions of dollars, has worked on important Chinese buildings himself, but said he is involved in architecture "as a hobby."
For days, in conference rooms at the Holiday Inn, the group struggled with questions like who will live in the houses and why the houses have to be so big. Several talked about the negative environmental impact of such large houses, but were unable to get firm answers to questions about where water and electricity would come from. (Mr. Cai said that some power would come from an array of solar panels near the site, that a few of the houses would have geothermal wells, and that by planting thousands of trees on the site he was helping to reverse desertification.)
Many architects were worried about the way the project broke from their usual way of working "with context, with a desire to make buildings that are part of the connective tissue of the city," as Mr. Rosbottom put it. In Ordos, the buildings will stand alone, "100 sculptures competing for attention," said Preston Scott Cohen, 46, an architect in Cambridge, Mass., and a professor at Harvard, on a cluster of lots ranging from just a quarter-acre to a half-acre. He proposed that there be restrictions on materials and colors, so that the houses would form a coherent whole, but Mr. Ai and the other organizers politely ignored the suggestion.
Mr. Ai, who is known as a provocateur, encouraged the architects to keep asking questions, though he rarely provided answers.
But he did offer some specific comments on the houses by the first 28 teams. At one point, he told Mr. Meredith and Ms. Sample that a garage building on their property seemed a bit too big and would overpower a neighboring house. "Why don't you take some time and see if you can adjust it," he said gently.
But they didn't need time. Mr. Meredith simply reached over to the cardboard model and ripped the garage off its base, exposing a patch of blue cardboard.
"Good, a swimming pool," said Mr. Ai, smiling.
He was less impressed with the few houses that had curved walls meant to evoke yurts. "When I see that, I have to take it as a joke," he said later. After all, Ordos is hardly a tent city. Indeed, Mr. Ai said, pointing to the architects who had traveled thousands of miles looking for work: "These days, it's the architects, dressed in black, who are the tribe of nomads."