Commune by the Great Wall
By Kevin Holden Platt
For nearly two thousand years, China's imperial rulers built and expanded the Great Wall - the world's largest work of military architecture - for just one purpose: to protect the empire from an invasion by foreign barbarians and their culture.
This mindset continues to this day - as evidenced by the construction of China's Great Firewall - so the wall seems like an unlikely site to invite a series of foreign architects to join their Chinese counterparts in creating a cluster of experimental works aimed at attracting visitors from all over the world.
But that is the central idea that led to the creation of the Commune by the Great Wall, a collection of buildings designed by a dozen architects from across Asia and Greater China, situated along the periphery of the wall on the remote northern outskirts of Beijing.
China's first emperor deployed scholars branded as dissidents - literally, with tattoos inscribed on their faces - to work as forced laborers on the frontier wall, packing clay into molds and then transferring these primitive bricks into the structure's rammed-earth core.
Reviving ancient building techniques
Each of the dozen projects spread out across the valleys and wall-capped peaks around the Commune highlights innovations in design, engineering or materials science.
Yung Ho Chang, one of contemporary China's earliest experimental architects, revived that building technology in the construction of his Split House at the Commune, which features compressed dirt walls in an environment-friendly design that also allows a small stream, capped by a transparent walkway, to cut across the project.
Chang, who is on the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, said when he unveiled the design that his use of these ancient building techniques was aimed not at resurrecting the past, but at mapping out a more ecologically balanced future for architecture in China.
Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has created a structure that is so light it almost seems it is about to take flight. This lightness is both optical - giant plates of glass and skylights allow endless waves of light to flow through the building - and physical - the project is partly constructed of super-light, super-strong bamboo.
Shigeru Ban stated in a description of this Bamboo Furniture House that he developed a new type of laminated bamboo almost by accident, after searching in vain for conventional building lumber across Beijing.
The use of timber, which dominated the architecture of Chinese temples and palaces for centuries, has nearly disappeared in the last decades of building steel and concrete skyscrapers across urban China.
The architect said the new laminated bamboo lumber he helped devise at the Commune turned out to be structurally stronger than timber. And although Ban stated that this Bamboo House was part of a series of experiments he has been conducting with pre-fabricated modularized building systems, the structure creates a new peak in design at the site.
An architectural chameleon that blends into nature
In another section of the Commune by the Great Wall, Kengo Kuma has crafted his Bamboo Wall, which is made of concrete and steel but clad in a layer of bamboo tubes that help the building morph like an architectural chameleon into its hillside environs. In an essay about the design, Kengo Kuma stated:
The Great Wall, running almost endlessly along the site's original topography, is seamlessly integrated into the surroundings. In an attempt to approach this formality, I put my construction on untreated slopes.
Inside the building, sliding bamboo screens that open onto a glass wall reveal a nearby blue pinnacle of a mountain, creating a Zen view of the natural pyramid echoing scenes depicted in Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings in centuries past.
Commune by the Great Wall awarded in Venice
The architects whose designs are scattered across the Commune by the Great Wall were each personally selected by Zhang Xin, who heads the property development outfit SOHO China.
Since the turn of the century, Ms. Zhang has been a leading force China-wide in the commissioning of avant-garde building designers; while many rival developers have been building generic skyscrapers to keep up with the pace of China's exploding urbanization, Zhang Xin has sought out experimental architects through a series of commissions and competitions.
During an exhibition of the Commune by the Great Wall projects at the 2002 Venice Biennale, she stated:
After 50 years of communism, China is transforming and reinventing itself socially, economically and artistically … The frantic level of energy and the huge amount of construction in such a short period of time has given China almost no time to search for its own contemporary architectural identity.
Our grand vision [with the Commune project], is to build a contemporary architecture museum in a valley of 8 square kilometers next to the Great Wall, to influence a whole generation of architects.
On the same occasion, the jury of the Biennale awarded Zhang Xin the 'Special Prize to an Individual Patron of Architectural Works', and the Pompidou Center in Paris acquired the Commune model displayed at Venice for the museum's permanent collection.
Last updated: December 08, 2014