Ordos 100 – Media spectacle, architectural zoo or critical regionalism?

2009 Essay, Tsinghua University. Theory and Practice of Regional Architecture. Topic: Globalisation and regional practice.


The global media and image production has slowly taken architecture as hostage in the quest for the novel and spectacular. With more and images being produced and distributed across the planet in record speed, we consume architecture through small-size, digitally produced images and retouched photos. What emerges out of this condition is a constant flux of needs and desires, which in turn generates even more erratic and self-assertive architecture.

Young successful architects today belong to the first generation to be fully aware of the potentials of a conscious media strategy. They are essentially becoming mediators between the ubiquitous image of spectacular architecture and the clients that wish to recreate and redefine themselves. These may be individuals, young successful entrepreneurs with a superficial interest in art and design, or ambitious developers in a building boom who discovered the value-adding potential of using young talent in a game of speculation and spin. The joint venture of client and architect is essential to how buildings come about in just about all cases, but what is interesting with this emerging condition is the increasing degree of transparency, of allowing the public to know what is going on behind previously closed doors. Today's clients have realised that by allowing the media to publish and the public to scrutinize a project before necessary contracts have been signed, ensures the client a certain freedom to drop controversy for a safer bet.

While developers are using the media to scan the market, architects are more than willing to publish unbuilt projects and competition entries to boost their publishing ranking and hopefully reaching a wider acknowledgment. This is mainly possible due to the changing publishing world, where blogs today have more readers than specialist magazines. In the past ten years, a young generation of architects have started to used a strategy of consciously translating public policies into architectural proposals channelled through mass media and boosted by bloggers. In so doing, they enter the public realm and gain influence on the public policies shaping their own field. But media exposure is a two-sided sword; Once a public figure, the architect easily becomes a targets in public campaigns or a puppet in a more powerful agent's agenda. However applicable today, the dialectical relationship between architects and media was brilliantly highlighted in Ayn Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead. The protagonist Howard Roark is put through a series of public trials to defend his works against an agitated, reactionary panel, all of which is part of his antagonist's, architecture critic Ellsworth Toohey's, personal plan to take over New York's biggest newspaper.

In the past ten years, China has become an extremely fertile ground for real estate ventures of the most adventurous type. Today, Chinese developers seem to be the most audacious in the world, falling short of only the Dubai (ironically on the brink of financial meltdown). In many ways, the increasing boldness can be attributed the low risk of failure: Double-figured growth, rapid urbanization, a growing domestic market and ever an increasing number of millionaires help sustain a superfluous amount of new housing projects all over China. The Ordos 100 project in Inner Mongolia is a good example of how a developer is using a very conscious media strategy to create attention for a large-scale commercial development. In the project, 'young' architecture is one of the ingredients in a hot pot of city branding, venture capital, global media coverage and new rich Mongolian coal miners.

In late 2007, one hundred young architects from around the world were invited by the Chinese magnate Cai Jiang to design one villa each in outskirts of the new Mongolian desert city of Ordos. The participants who answered fast enough were flown in to visit the site and given the simple brief: A one thousand square metre villa, two to three stories, with pool and servant's quarters. A few months later, they were all gathered again in Ordos to present their proposals in front a large press entourage and two documentary film teams. Ai Weiwei, curator of the project and designer of the master plan, was leading the event. The invitation could not have come in a better time as the financial downturn left many architects begging for opportunities. Indeed, Mr. Ai said, pointing to the architects who had travelled thousands of miles looking for work: “These days, it’s the architects, dressed in black, who are the tribe of nomads.”i

The master plan reinterprets the American suburbia model of the 1950's without any significant reshaping. What is presented is a curved set of wide roads branching out into cul-de-sacs lined by square-shaped parcels with generous setbacks. The setbacks function as a visual buffer, making sure that each building becomes an object that can be viewed from all sides.i The 'public corridor' that wedges in between a few of the villas seems to be a dilettante excuse, a bait thrown out for the Western architects not to turn down the project due to the its obvious excluding nature. On the edge of the villa zone is an art museum designed by the young Chinese office DnA, a building that successfully refers to itself like a snake eating its own end, in the absence of a dynamic site. The villas and museums form a part of a much larger development, consisting of 2500 housing units of the standardized kind aimed for the less wealthy, but still well-off new settlers of Ordos City.ii

Despite the obvious possibility to bring forward young local talents, only foreign architects were invited to design the villas. The project relied on the network of Herzog & de Meuron to locate the cream of up-and-coming designers from a global selection, but the fact that almost 20 % of them are located in Basel hints at a biased roundup of ex-employees of the renowned firm. Nevertheless, the Ordos project has become one of the most talked-about in the architecture sphere with magazines and blogs with sections dedicated to counting down all of the 100 projects. As the city master plan and surrounding housing projects fail to take on a regionalist approach, it has been up to each team to define their own agenda of problems to be addressed. When I visited the desolate site earlier this year I could overlook an array of imaginative models competing for our acclaim like carps in a fish tank fighting to become dinner. Though everyone seems to have worked with the best of intentions, only a handful of them stand out from the 'crowd'. Various interpretations of the traditional Chinese courtyard house seem to be the most recurring element in the proposals, proving its relevance as a strategy in regulating wind conditions and providing a social pivoting point. Whilst some designs refer to the Mongolian yurts by suggesting a rounded shape, others show complete disregard to local traditions by proposing exuberant linear bodies elevated over artificially irrigated lawns. I will bring forward two proposals that, in very different ways, negotiates between local conditions and a desire to add value and meaning to the place.

The villa by the French office R&Sie(n) looks at first glance to be out of touch with reality. The model put on display in the museum, a pixelated landscape of white foam board, does not reveal the project's micro-cosmic ambitions. The drawings and renderings show a building seemingly integrated with an artificial landscape, a protective quilt under which the 'living ecology' can prosper. Two main elements give shape to the building: the hill and the crater, representing the convex and concave typologies drawn from the surrounding landscape.iii

R&Sie(n)'s project takes advantage of the freedom given by the masterplan to explore a narrative of two worlds: “(…) 'under the planet' environment and society, sweet and wet, in contrast with the windy and dry surface of the upper desert...”.i In line with many of their previous projects, the building envelope is the element through which the narrative is translated. The building lacks traditional facades; the envelope is instead a homogenous structural element breaking up from the ground, destabilizing the common hierarchy of a vertical-horizontal piling. The structure is clad in green, blue ceramic tiles, turning beige at the edges, merging with the dry garden towards the edges. Light is brought in by rectangular cuts in the wall/roof structure, arrayed without hierarchy of size and orientation.

The villa by Mexican office FRENTE presents a straightforward model based on a duality of the introvert and extrovert. Similar to many other proposals, a large part of the programme is placed underground, organised around an excavated courtyard. The remaining programme is elevated two levels above ground, orthogonally above the courtyard, creating a clear separation of the villa into two. As the elevated 'small villa' features the programme needed to work independently, it presents the user to the choice of between being buried, thermally protected or elevated above the landscape but also exposed to the winds and gaze of curious neighbours. A forest of free standing columns surround the floating volume, posing as a distraction for the load-bearing ones.

No doubt, Ordos 100 has already put the Chinese 'Instant Urbanism' on the map, as a media event and and as an eclectic architectural utopia. We have already seen similar projects for new CBD's in medium-size cities in China, or . Despite Ordos 100's obvious venture capital overcoat, it has generated a very interesting output which proposes alternatives to the predominant building norms of housing developments in China. If we disregard the scale – a 1000 sqm villa for new rich settlers is not immediately comparable with dense urban developments for the middle class – most of the designs show serious concern for local conditions of climate, building typologies, materials and techniques. Much more so than the designs by the domestic design institutes sprawling the rest of the city.

Viewed individually, the houses are thoughtful and bring forward many relevant ideas for how to deal with the lack of content. The soulless character of the project has in itself become a driving force to produce substance, each architect representing a client in their absence. It is however likely that the public fails to recognize the regionalist ambitions of each individual design, as the spectacular image of an 'architectural zoo' starts to emerge, especially considering their proximityi. As a model for urbanism, it represents a bitter-tasting retrospective on a collision course with our current knowledge of resource economisation. In view of this past month's collapsed climate negotiations, I sadly believe we have yet to see the end of such wasteful strategies. Nevertheless, this project shows that we as individual architects can put climatic and regional issues high on the agenda, presenting a wide range of alternatives to the common way to build in China.

i In Inner Mongolia, pushing Architecture's outer limits. Article in New York Times 2008-05-10

i Lebbeus Woods: O' Ordos. Blog entry 2008-05-07

ii http://www.iconeye.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3249

iii http://www.new-territories.com/bluegreen

i Ferdynand Ossendowski, Beast, Men and Gods, Through Mongolia, 1929-1921

i 'Browsing for utopia' thesis by Michael T. Abrahamson The Ohio State University 2009