The Architectural Review has published my review of the Maillen Hotel and Apartments by Urbanus. In the published review, I look at China Merchants’ recent push to gentrify Shekou in terms of gated communities for Shenzhen’s expatriate community. As designed by Urbanus, the Maillen Hotel and Apartments suggest the role of traditional Chinese gardens in the ideological transformation of Maoism into neoliberalism. A synopsis of the review, below; full article, here (with pictures by Sarah Cain).
Urbanus’ stated intention was to design the Maillen Hotel and Apartment with respect to both extant geographic conditions and the traditional Chinese ideas about landscape and garden design, incorporating Nan Shan Mountain into its design with an eye to realizing the aesthetic ideal of “bu yi jing yi”, a four-character expression which literally translates as “step moves landscape moves” and refers to the experience of enjoying new garden scenes with each step taken.
By incorporating the hill into its design, Urbanus took advantage of the section of Nan Shan that remains standing. Historically mountains and hills defined the South China landscape, and Shekou was no exception. However, during the first two decades of development in Shenzhen, urban planning and design prioritized speed and price over any other value, including environmental impact. The Chinese expression for land reclamation, “yi shan tian hai” or “move mountains and fill the sea” literally describes the step-by-step transformation of the Shenzhen Bay coastline. First, raze a mountain – and many Shenzhen hills no longer exist except as place names – and, second, reclaim coastal land, creating flat, relatively inexpensive building sites. The point, of course, is that as the city has prospered and natural features such as Nan Shan have been restructured, their market value has increased exponentially.
The Maillen design also invokes traditional garden design through landscape. Elegant courtyards, perennial bamboo clusters, and delicate plum blossoms evoke literati lives in Suzhou, which during the Song dynasty codified the defining features of a traditional garden. In a classical Chinese garden, stylized elements – ponds, a rock garden, trees and flowers, as well as built structures, for example – symbolized the larger world. The key point, of course, is that the garden allowed members of the Emperor’s court, classical scholars and wealthy merchants to experience themselves as being one with nature without actually having to go into a forest or sail on the ocean.
It is at the moment of exclusivity, or rather the potential to market and sell privatized pleasure that we see the appeal of classical Chinese gardens to contemporary real estate developers. Classical gardens were restricted spaces of elite pleasure, where scholarly achievement and social rank determined who was or was not permited to enjoy the elegant topiary and tranquil spaces. Today, money and status rather than scholarly achievement or social rank might determine who crosses the threshhold, but the effect is the same, the creation of a fashionable space for a select minority. With the Maillen Hotel and Apartment, Urbanus has designed a witty, elegant, and self-enclosed space of privileged consumption.
Indeed, when we architecturally cite China’s classical past, it is important to remember that we are also invoking the feudal hierarchy that the Revolution aimed to overcome.