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Top mainland resorts get back to peasant rootsOnce a maligned style, traditional Chinese architecture is making a comeback as hotels and homes follow elegant designs of imperial pastKavita Daswani22 February 2012Even as recently as five years ago, hotel owners and property developers on the mainland would have scoffed at the idea of using traditional village architecture as a point of inspiration.But in what appears to be a gradual shift in the world of design on the mainland, a new aesthetic is emerging - and it is steeped in centuries-old constructions.The ancient buildings of China - from the villas and palaces of noblemen to simple village homes - are being increasingly referenced for new luxury developments in resorts, hotels and even private homes.Last December saw the official unveiling of Driftwood Array, a residential development in Haikou, the capital of the scenic island of Hainan, where all 40 homes will be built to resemble the traditional village homes of Anhui province.The rooms of the Four Seasons in Hangzhou, which opened in 2010, are housed in buildings modelled on gracious Jiangnan-style homes, themselves inspired by Song dynasty (960-1279) palaces. Amanfayun, another Hangzhou luxury hotel which opened in early 2010, also has rooms housed in the Jiangnan style.A new golf-resort development soon to begin construction in rural Anji county will offer homes designed in league with historic Anhui village properties. Hong Kong-based design firm Bilkey Llinas Design is working on 30 projects on the mainland, a third of which are being envisaged with some link to Chinese historic architecture.International designers and architects working on these projects say the turnaround in attitude is nothing short of dramatic.“When we first went to China, I was invited by a client who took me through a number of historic villages and I was really taken by the simplicity of them,” says Robert Hidey, founder of California-based architecture firm Robert Hidey Architects. “I was impressed by the rational decisions in terms of organisation, and thought the quality of the spaces to be just exceptional.”Still, when Hidey suggested to the client that he use some of those principles to work on the residential project he was there for, the client recoiled at the idea. “They said they didn’t want to do a traditional Chinese aesthetic, that it would be a peasant house, and wouldn’t be marketable,” Hidey says.That was seven years ago. Today, Hidey has just completed the designing of Driftwood Array, phase one of an as-yet-undetermined number of phases. When the units started being shown at Christmas, 30 of 40 were sold within five days, says Zhou Shuangjie, vice-general manager of developer Sino-Ocean Land Hainan.“What I’ve found in the past two or three years is more of a shift, more of an interest in China’s own architectural heritage,” Hidey says.Robert Bilkey, president of Bilkey Llinas Design, which was behind the creation of the Four Seasons in Hangzhou, says that he too is noticing the change in attitude.“Ten years ago, I would never have been asked to do a private residence in Chinese style,” he says. “Today, that’s what is being requested.”He says that people were formerly reluctant to “copy revolutionary-style architecture”, which to them was simple and basic.“They wanted something with a bit more romance and detail, so what they did was borrow from architectural themes in Europe, America, South America. But, interestingly enough, they now can stand back and look at the beauty of what Chinese architecture really is, and there is a re-emergence of falling back onto the culture.”Of course, there are as many different types of Chinese architecture as there are provinces and pockets of the wider culture. Colin Liu, project manager for Driftwood Array, says that because Anhui province is part of Jiangnan, there are similarities between both styles.
“Anhui homes are simple and graceful, with the homes being organised by narrow lanes that open up to public spaces,” he says. “The differences between Anhui and Jiangnan-style homes are subtle ... Anhui homes tend to be more simple.”Hidey researched the traditional homes of Anhui province for Driftwood Array; the result is grey gabled roofs and cantilevered balconies on houses set amid cobblestoned paths and gentle streams. They are being pitched as holiday homes to prospective buyers from Hong Kong or the mainland, and sell from US$320,000 to US$710,000 for homes that range from 710 sq ft to 2,300 sq ft.For the Four Seasons, which is built right on the lake, Bilkey says he explored a number of different villages and architectural styles in the region and ended up falling in love with the style of Song dynasty palaces and homes once built by the wealthy merchants and elites who lived around the lake. Bilkey says he was drawn to the traditional courtyards of these homes and the exterior walls, which gave them an exclusive, self-contained sensibility.“Everything was always directed visually towards the vistas of water,” he says. “The Song dynasty was one of the most romantic periods of history, when art and literature thrived, and we wanted to bring that to bear in this property.” Hence the different textures of tiles and the use of different stones, including slate.“Everything is done in such a tapestry of materials,” he says.Similarly, the design sensibility of Amanfayun, created by Indonesia- and Singapore-based designer Jaya Ibrahim, is predicated on Jiangnan-style architecture, which is rich with greenery and the visual pairings of water and stones.Still, all designers wrestle with the challenge of creating an authentic space without its being a cliche. Hidey travelled extensively and took scores of photographs of what he was hoping to replicate, but says he was especially mindful in designing Driftwood Array not to produce a straight imitation of a World Heritage village, and instead to focus on distilling those elements into something modern and liveable.In the US, he is known for creating European-inspired courtyard-centric homes that allow for plenty of natural light while encouraging a feeling of intimacy, and he says he found many similar schools of thought when creating the Chinese village homes.All the main rooms and bedrooms in Driftwood Array face south, in line with the favoured orientation of Chinese domestic architecture. Exteriors are light coloured and feature wood cage details. The homes also have their own courtyards, private gardens and small pools.“We showed a fair amount of constraint,” he says.Driftwood Array is designed around a series of arched bridges and waterways, green garden spaces and quaint streets that will be used by pedestrians and cyclists. Although there are parking spots, the idea is not to have lots of cars driving up and down the pathways.“I think people are looking for something new, and are craving a home with a different quality and characteristic,” Hidey says about what he sees as a pioneering trend.“When it’s not a primary residence anyway, people can be a bit more experimental.”
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