By the time I arrived at Sanhe, a house designed by the venerated Chinese architect Wang Shu, it was late. And I was very, very full. A few hours earlier, I had landed in Nanjing, a Chinese metropolis of more than 8 million people, and had wasted no time in meeting up with a group of young artists who were ringing in the start of crayfish season. China eats more than 850,000 tons of crayfish each year, and we did our best to make a dent in that figure as we gleefully feasted on platter upon platter of the delicious “little lobsters”, as they’re called in Chinese, smothered in garlic, curry and pickled cabbage. All this was thanks to our host, Lu Xun, son of the developer of Sifang Collective, the architecture park just outside the city and my final destination that night.
Sifang Collective is situated in the quiet, shadowy stillness of a forested valley, half an hour’s drive from the city centre. My home there for the evening was one of dozens of buildings by celebrated architects scattered across a swath of mountain. Darkness prevailed. With their trunks artfully illuminated, it was as if the trees lining the road had sucked up all the lights around them, leaching the buildings – a cantilevered art museum by Steven Holl; a hotel and conference cluster by Liu Jiakun, Arata Isozaki and Ettore Sottsass; houses by Ai Weiwei, Zhang Lei and Sean Godsell – of their presence. The place was dreamily uninhabited, even primeval, except for a small film crew shooting a sci-fi flick, their inflatable lights hovering above them like UFOs. Any time you assemble a collection of buildings by eminent architects, there’s an element of surrealism. For most of human history, we have built according to the prevailing method or style, be it the tapering stone and rammed-earth houses of Tibet, the Georgian terraces of London, or the red sandstone confections of the Mughals. These building types usually arose from complex interactions of ideas and needs that spread, evolved and comingled across cultures and geographies, but they were generally consistent across their era and place, with new layers accumulating over time.
In fact, in most places, architects as we currently think of them didn’t even exist. There were builders and craftsmen, but not architects in the sense of professionals, much less practitioners of an art. Needless to say, we’ve made up for lost time. Nowadays, we look to prominent designers (sometimes known by that dreaded word “starchitect”) to give form to our ambitions, identities and capacity to experiment and innovate.
By contrast, Sifang Collective was conceived as a kind of architectural resort. Visitors come for its art museum and conference and wellness centres, and can spend the night in its hotel – or, if they’re lucky, in one of the villas (not all are open to guests). Perched atop a ridge overlooking a lake, Sanhe emerges upon my arrival like a monumental, moonlit sculpture. U-shaped in plan – its name means roughly “three-sided residence” – the house is a dignified pile of grey stone-clad walls topped by swooping, concrete roofs. Designed in 2003, almost a decade before Wang became China’s first Pritzker Prize winner, it bears many of the architect’s signature moves: the woven bamboo-textured concrete; the courtyard, with its pond; the irregularly placed windows and openings framing assiduously studied views. Perhaps more to the point, Wang brings these features together to create a sense of three-dimensional, pictorial space. That is to say, Wang’s buildings are not so much about getting from point A to point B. Instead, with their skewed perspectives, zigzagging stairs and jigsaw-like spaces, they’re made for meandering, becoming something like a Chinese garden or landscape painting manifested in concrete and brick. I thought of this that night as I sat by the lily-covered pond of the courtyard, under the building’s ribbon-like eaves. The moon was hazy. And as I listened to the nocturnal croaks, chirps and warbles that were the only sounds breaking the silence – amplified, at just the right spots, by the house’s articulated concrete – a bright light came towards me from behind a thatch of bamboo. It was a security guard, making his rounds. “Are you staying here?” he asked. I was, I told him, wondering what it must be like to roam this idyllic, architectural menagerie every night.
Sifang Collective came into being in 2003 after the local government sold the land to Lu Jun, a Nanjing property developer who had won over officials with his cultural intentions for the site. Though a collector of modern Chinese art, as well as archives and documents from the country’s early twentieth-century Republican era, Lu was less well-versed in architecture and design. Spurred on by a group of Chinese designers, including Wang, he was introduced to the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Soon a plan was in place for Isozaki to commission 12 buildings by as many designers from abroad, while the Chinese architect Liu Jiakun would assign another 12 to his compatriots.
Indeed, Zhou and his cohorts seemed to be having fun. As butterflies flitted nearby, a hammock swayed, while PVC pipes, plastic water barriers and other scavenged construction materials had been arranged to create what can only be described as an obstacle course for slackers.
On the grass, a cord traced the shape of a grotesque cartoon character, as if the artists were trying to communicate with aliens. One of the great things about architecture is that you never know how it will actually be used. Zhou and the other artists had brought a life to Sifang Collective that its architects probably hadn’t anticipated. Zhou himself planned to build treehouses near the site. But still, I was happy to take Wang Shu.