Babel for Billionaires

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei recently proclaimed that he would quit architecture (see Mark #12, ‘I jumped on the wrong train’). When I meet him again at a gathering of architects in the new Chinese city of Ordos, I remind him of his statement. He laughs. ‘I am not on the train any more, I am working on the rail road now,’ he replies. Meaning: he now shapes the conditions for architects to do their work.

ORDOS100 | April 2008

We are in a hotel lobby, mid-April, and the space is filled with architects from all over the world. They have each been invited to build a 1000-m2 villa in one of the more exclusive residential areas of the city in the making. The 197-hectare neighborhood is called the ‘Ordos Cultural Creative Industry Park’ by officials, and ORDOS100 by everyone else, after the amount of participating architects. The atmosphere is both relaxed and tense. Some architects (those who made a design for the first phase of the neighbourhood) are here for the second time, others (the ones that worked on the second phase) are curious to understand what is happening. In the corridors the proposals of phase I are displayed for discussion. During the arguments one hears English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Hebrew, Swedish, Chinese and some other languages. ORDOS100 is an attempt to build a Babel for Billionaires and Ai Weiwei is its curator.

Ordos - Genghis Khan Square (top) and Central Axis (bottom) | January 2008

The city of Ordos is located an 80-minute flight west of Beijing. It sits in the Ordos Basin, an area known as ‘China’s 21st century energy bank’ because of the still unexploited quantities of coal, gas and oil that are available there. At some distance from the airport, construction cranes fill the horizon of a largely empty desert territory. Here, in the Kangbashi District, on an area of 155 km2, 30 km from the old city of Ordos in the Dongsheng District, the local government is building a city from scratch for a planned population of 200,000 in the year 2020. Singaporean firm AGV is carrying out the planning. Their master plan entails a concentric scheme and is based on the idea that the new city centre is like a sun rising from a meadow and radiating from the centre to all sides. In the heart of the design is a central axis, connecting the governmental administration area with an entertainment area and a financial district. The central square, called Genghis Kahn Square, is 1.6 km long and 400 m wide. Around this square are currently four buildings under construction, called ‘the four cultural relics’: a library, a museum, a cultural centre and an ethnic theatre. The cultural centre is designed by Beijing-based MAD.

During the earlier site visit in January concerning phase I, Bao Chongming, vice mayor of Ordos, explained the ambition as follows: ‘In the 1980s we looked at Shenzhen as a model for urban development, in the 1990s we looked at Shanghai and it is my hope is that in the coming 20 years when people look for a new model they will look at Ordos.’ Having the second highest per-capita income in China and an annual economic growth rate of 40%, Ordos is capitalizing on its resources, creating a new middle class that needs better living conditions, and a new generation of billionaires that wants outstanding buildings. The 100 architects, originating from 29 different countries and selected by Swiss architects and special consultants Herzog & de Meuron, have not only been invited to design, but also to draw worldwide attention to this place. At least, that’s what investor Jiang Yuan Cultural & Creative Industrial Development and Jiang Yuan Water Engineering want them to do. And given the media attention so far, they seem to be succeeding.

But in this case, it’s not only marketing. The strategy of inviting famous architects to lend some lustre to high-profile developments is common practice all over the world. One of the many recent examples is Next Gene 20, a collection of 20 villas in Taiwan, designed by MVRDV, Kengo Kuma and Julien De Smedt, and the like. But ORDOS100 differs from similar projects in more than one respect. First of all, the project is part of a whole new city. Second, it’s actually being built, and very quickly at that. According to planning, phase I will be built by the end of 2008. Construction on phase II will start after the Mongolian winter of 2008 and will be finished by the end of 2009. And third, Herzog & de Meuron have avoided inviting starchitects and opted for young, upcoming architects instead.

For the majority of these architects, working in China means adapting to a different building process than they are accustomed to. For instance, their involvement ends with the design phase, as the construction drawings and the execution are the responsibility of their Chinese partners. Why would any architect agree to such an arrangement? The reason is simple. Cai Jiang, a 40-year old tycoon who made himself a fortune by a trade in milk and coal and who commissioned the 100 architects, trusted them with a freedom few could refuse. ‘We provide the architects with a plot and they can go the whole hog,’ he tells me during the January meeting.

We give them the freedom to design whatever they want, so they can put all their ideas into their work. If there happens to be a difference between the designs and the Chinese regulations, we will do something to make the balance and try our best to make it better.

The architects will have to make do with that, and they do so obligingly.

ORDOS100 Site | January 2008

Ordos Art Museum designed by DnA | January 2008

At the time of the site visit in January, there are only two buildings on the edge of the largely empty white desert: the Ordos Art Museum designed by Chinese architecture firm DnA and a complex with artist studios by Ai Weiwei’s Fake Design. The last one is a copy of the artist studios he built in Beijing. For some architects it is hard to imagine this barren site being built. ‘I need all the imagination in the world,’ Dutch architect Kamiel Klaasse from NL Architects tells me. ‘Is this going to be a rough place or a sophisticated paradise? It’s hard to imagine what our client sees beyond the horizon.’ The high density of the master plan confuses some architects as well. Mexican architect Derek Dellekamp: ‘Considering the fact that there is no lack of space here, I expected the villa’s to be more free standing. The openness here is a treasure. Why not use it? According to the master plan, this area will be very urban. I have to make a mental switch for that.‘ The fact that there are 100 architects involved, raises some concerns as well. ‘I can’t deny that our client has a fantastic vision,’ says Indian architect Gurjit Singh Matharoo. ‘But there could be a big chaos in the end. There are so many minds on such a small plot of land. It might not generate a beautiful place, but maybe this project is about something else. About the exchange of architectural ideas, for instance.

ORDOS100 - First Phase proposals | April 2008

The 100 Room House by Testbedstudio (left), The Breathing House by Encore Heureux + G-Studio (right)

Three months later Matharoo proves to be right. After the dinner on the first night of the meeting in April, the architects from phase I fill a large mock-up of the building site with their models. A whole caboodle of architecture arises and different styles compete with each other: a villa with 100 rooms, a dwelling without distinction between inside and outside, a house with a green heart, a monolith, different boxes colliding together into one form, a house based on the idea of ‘holistic materiality’, a villa without a claim on its territory, a dwelling dug into a dune, a green mountain rising out of the desert. The Parisian office Encore Heureux along with G-Studio designed a Gourbi Palace, later renamed as The Breathing House. The architects call their retro-futurist design a ‘survival-utopia’: a 1.4 m brick wall protects the inside from the outside, harnessing it against warmth, cold and wind. Their justification: ‘The notion of context is absent as we didn’t know what other architects would propose. For us the context is the sky, as we were sure nobody would touch that. So we made this central void, around which the house is organized.

Israeli-Palestinian architect Senan Abdelqader proposes a reinterpretation of the traditional Chinese villa. ‘Globalization is all-pervasive,’ he tells me. ‘I think that the Chinese dwelling, like the Arab house, should be translated into a modern idiom. I don’t believe in a vernacular anymore.’ A series of voids and solids vaguely resembles a traditional house and creates a compact plan that keeps a low profile. The Mexican office Productora opts for a narcissistic house that brings the façade to the interior. The explanation: ‘By slicing up the volume, we created an introverted house as each room looks at the back of the next segment, a closed brick wall. When you enter a house you normally loose sight of the façade, but here one is constantly confronted with it.

And these are only the architects of phase I. As soon as the architects from phase two arrive at the meeting in April, the Babel-like confusion is complete. Some want to critically review the assignment and the master plan, others just want to give an answer to the brief. Turkish architect Han Tumertekin (Mimarlar) is an exponent of the latter. ‘When I am confronted with such a big organization I presume the assignment is well-considered,’ he says. ‘Architects have become much more interested in issues outside architecture over the past few years, but some of them have forgotten how to carry out a brief well.’ Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena (Elemental) is also supportive of the master plan. ‘Luxury houses in such a dense context are unusual for wealthy people. I hope this could shift the tendency of rich people to try and isolate themselves from each other.’ Korean architect Minsuk Cho (Mass Studies) sees another challenge: ‘Normally a city is composed of layers of accumulated history. Here we have to come up with instant identity, character and all of that. How do you do that? I don’t know yet.

ORDOS100 - 100 architects meet and greet | April 2008

The Green House by NL Architects (left), The Monolith by Derek Dellekamp (right)

But whatever the results, ORDOS100 is, from all perspectives, a unique project. It gives the architects involved a lot of freedom and asks them to push the limits of their creativity, while at the same time it forces them to come up with a strategy for the lack of control during the building process. Some of the architects involved in phase I have taken a close look at Ai Weiwei’s own work and his philosophy to keep architecture simple. One of them is Senan Abdelqader. ‘My plan is clear and uncomplicated,’ he says, ‘so it should be very easy for Chinese workers to realize. That’s my way of making sure that the result resembles my intentions.’ What is to come out of it remains to be seen, but according to Ai Weiwei, this uncertainty is exactly the point of the whole project. He quit architecture and is now working on the ‘rail road’, because he wants architects to meet, discuss and create without constrains. ‘We provide possibilities,’ he tells me with conviction at the end of the weekend in April. ‘That’s what I am interested in. We need possibilities instead of conclusions and results.

– – –
“Babel for Billionaires” by Bert de Muynck
Published in Mark Magazine #15 August/September, 2008

Other publications in MARK Magazine;
A Letter from Beijing | Published in MARK Magazine #09 (July-August, 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | Published in MARK Magazine #12 (Feb-March, 08)
Olympic Architecture | Published in MARK Magazine #14 (June-July, 08)


ORDOS100 proposals by mentioned architects

movingcities & ORDOS100

Pictures by Bert de Muynck & Mónica Carriço |

(back to Writings on China or ORDOS100 – MovingCities Embedded Research)

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