Architectural Experiment at the Foot of the Great Wall of China

  • Joanna Kucharzewska (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


At the foot of the Great Wall of China, near the town of Badaling, SOHO Small Office –Home Office in 2000 started constructing 59 detached guesthouses. Each of them was to be equipped with extensive cultural, entertainment, and business facilities. The creators of the project, the owner of the design office, Mr. Shiyi and his wife Mrs. Zhang Xin, invited 12 renowned architects to their endeavor, and gave them total freedom of creation. Although the project was charged with a high level of risk, and its final shape was difficult to predict, it became an unprecedented success, even though available only for a narrow group of affluent residents of the Middle Kingdom, as well as curious tourists from Western Europe and North America. The edifices, constructed over a period of 10 years, are probably more recognized in the western world than in China; it can be attributed to the exhibition of the design at the Venice Biennale in 2002, during which it was honored with a special prize. Additionally, the names of architects, brands in themselves, attracted the attention of critics and experts in architecture, who were particularly interested in the outcome of the encounter of great architectural individualities while creating Commune by the Great Wall. Three Japanese architects took part in the project. Kengo Kuma called his edifice Great Bamboo Wall (2000-2002), from the type of material employed for creating external-wall cladding as well as internal partitions; Shigeru Ban in his design, Bamboo Furniture House, used bamboo veneer lumber to create furniture to be prefabricated and used as the main component in addition to the exterior and interior walls. Finally, Nobuaki Furuya’s Forest House aimed at carrying out his own concept of architecture as a place of safety (asylum). Kanika R’kul, who carries out her designs mainly in Taiwan, presented Shared House that was its form similar to the practice of American modernism. A signifi cant factor turned out to be the education in architecture that R’kul obtained at one of Californian universities, and her familiarity with American modernism as well as the activities of so-called “New York Five”. The motive behind the activities of another architect, Cui Kai, was primarily to obtain different views from inside the house, which was highlighted by the name of the project, See and Seen House. Antonio Ochoa Piccardo from Venezuela, the only author of non-Asian origin, though connected with Asian world for many years via designing edifices for SOHO office, also tried to provide variety of visual experience for the audiences of another guesthouse, Cantilever House. On the one hand, via employing raw concrete, Béton brut, it was homage to Le Corbusier, on the other hand, it expressed respect to the surrounding nature, articulated with using sienna pigment as wall dye. Rocco Yim from Hong Kong, the author of Distorted Courtyard, in a veiled mode drew from the traditions and practices of a typical house with a courtyard, and Kay Ngee Tan from Singapore subjected his design, The Twins, to surrounding nature, using local stone as his building material. The name of another guesthouse, Split House, contains the original design idea of a Chinese architect, Yung Ho Chang. The building was made with one piece that was cut and its parts were diagonally spaced.Two following projects were born from a desire to experiment in the field of mass solutions or the arrangement of the interior; they became an unique interjection of the local landscape and forced the audiences to change their habits. The first, Airport House by Chien Hsueh-Yi from Taiwan, resembled a section of an airport building. The second, the now famous Suitcase House by Gary Chang from Edge Design Institute, allowed for creating multiple spatial combinations with mobile walls and corners hidden under the floor. The crowning element of Commune by the Great Wall is a multi-functional clubhouse designed in 2001 by a world-renowned South Korean architect, Seung H-Sang of the Iroje Architects & Planners design offi ce. As the concept of Commune by the Great Wall developed and new guesthouses were constructed, the clubrooms also enlarged. In 2005 Seung H-Sang returned to the project. The Commune by the Great Wall project supported by SOHO Studios combines pavilions that are extremely modern with more traditional ones; others constitute a subtle link between local color and a playful functionalism. The eleven edifices presented above constituted prototypical solutions, followed by numerous replicas across the land. Currently, Commune by the Great Wall is an exclusive leisure and entertainment area subject to the Kempinski hotel brand with appropriate promotion and an extensive marketing program, e.g. advertisements on websites and in prestigious journals, such as Business Week. A bold experiment from a Chinese developer has become an alternative for tourists from around the world, looking in China not only examples of centuries-old culture, but also the visual signs of a developing country that follows modern trends.