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Maillen Hotel and Apartments in Shenzhen, China by Urbanus

Inspired by the multiple levels of traditional Chinese gardens, this new residential complex opens up to the surrounding landscape – while closing itself off from the city beyond

Over 25 years ago, the Shekou People’s Government bought the Minghua cruise ship from France, repurposing it as a floating restaurant, nightclub and hotel. At the time, the Minghua docked at a pier jutting into Shenzhen Bay and Chinese guests had a sense of embarking on an international cruise, destination: the good life. Western restaurants and Mediterranean style shops were constructed around a vaguely Portuguese plaza (modelled on Macau’s Plaza Leal) next to the Minghua.

The Maillen Hotel and Apartments are a direct result of the decisions to dismantle the Maoist political economy. At Shekou, property developers China Merchants introduced many of the reforms that are today considered central to the Shenzhen Model of development, including manufacturing to meet (and stimulate) market demand, foreign investment, directly hiring and firing employees (rather than using centralised work assignments) and introducing market-driven management principles. In fact, during the 1980s, Shekou’s motto, ‘Time is Money, Efficiency is Life’, circulated throughout China and informed public debate about whether economic reform meant betraying socialism and becoming capitalist.

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Despite embracing views of the surrounding landscape, the scheme is actually enclosed, its angled massing is itself essentially a defensive wall to a gated community

This new centre of ‘bourgeois’ consumption was Seaworld Plaza, the historic symbol of the area since 1984, when Deng Xiaoping boarded the Minghua and, pleased with what he saw, wrote the four characters for Seaworld (Hai Shang Shi Jie), which now grace the ship’s entrance. For the next decade, Seaworld Plaza functioned as the geographic symbol of Shekou and the decadent promise of reform. By the mid-1990s, the Houhai land reclamation project extended along Shenzhen Bay from Futian to Shekou, a distance of some 13 kilometres in length, land locking the Minghua. The ship subsequently fell into disuse and the reclaimed land next to it was turned into a golf course.

To complete the circle, in 2010, China Merchants began upgrading old Shekou factories, building skyscrapers on the reclaimed land, and restoring the Minghua and Seaworld Plaza to their earlier status as a site of Westernised consumption.

A short walk from Seaworld and the extensive renovations to Shekou, China Merchants commissioned Urbanus Architecture and Design to build a gated complex of residential apartments and boutique hotel rooms. The site itself is a sloped hill that previously fronted Shenzhen Bay and now recedes behind one of the largest land reclamation projects in the world.

Urbanus’s stated intention was to design the Maillen Hotel and Apartments with respect to both extant topographic conditions and traditional Chinese ideas about landscape and garden design. The mountain became both the inspiration and design focus, with an eye to realising 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. This is more than rhetorical: it is the contemplative way in which three-dimensional space is enhanced through the fourth dimension − time.

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Internally the courtyard is designed on the principle of ‘step moves land moves’, so that the space unfolds on different levels

By incorporating the hill into its design, Urbanus took advantage of the section of Nanshan Hill 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 prioritised 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 mountains and coastlines have been restructured, their market value has increased exponentially.

In the Maillen design, Urbanus’s founding partner Meng Yan and his colleagues have interpreted ‘step moves landscape moves’ through edges that curve away and paths with unexpected twists. The design of the hotel entrance explicitly realises the principle of concealing as much as it reveals.

Likewise, in the hotel lobby, marble pools and sofas allow guests to make the transition from the chaotic rush of Shekou to the measured steps of a leisurely garden walk. The ceiling panels echo the project’s undulating geometry, where the design reproduces the lines of a gradient map. Moreover, lobby windows frame the interior courtyard, providing a tantalising glimpse of what lies beyond the building threshold. Indeed, one of the pleasures of walking through Maillen is anticipation even more than the actual discovery. Much like a Möbius strip, the courtyard pathways do not lead to a privileged destination, but rather fold back onto themselves, emphasising movement through space and thereby teasing the visitor with the possibility of fresh perspectives.

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The continuous perimeter wall wraps in plan to make a series of smaller scale enclosures of different characters, from softer garden spaces to more urban conditions

If the spatial layout of public space at the Maillen Hotel and Apartments evokes the fourth dimension through the changing placement of bodies in motion, the second way in which the design explicitly references time is through historic citation. Elegant courtyards, perennial bamboo clusters and delicate plum blossoms evoke literati lives. In a classical Chinese garden, stylised elements such as ponds, a rock garden, trees and flowers, as well as built structures, for example, symbolised 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 being at one with nature without actually having to go into a forest or sail the ocean.

Classical Chinese gardens perfected the contradictory impulse to experience the infinite complexity of the universe within a bounded space. When the human eye follows the vertical line of a well-placed ornamental bamboo or rests in the shade of canopy trees, we enjoy the visceral pleasure of design that integrates the built and natural environments. Walking along rough paths and over small bridges, colourful koi invoke Zhuang Zi’s philosophical playfulness (‘How do you know I don’t know what the fish is thinking?’, the Daoist sage asked his student Huizi). Indeed, classical Chinese gardens give form to one version of true leisure and the purpose of human life, that is, freedom from labour and the necessity of earning a living, during which time the individual is liberated to pursue self-fulfilling activities, such as contemplating the world.

Maillen Hotel and Apartments site plan

Maillen Hotel and Apartments site plan

Back in the real world, however, it is at the moment of exclusivity, or rather the potential to market and sell privatised 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 permitted to enjoy the elegant topiary and tranquil spaces. In other words, 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.

Today, money and status rather than scholarly achievement or social rank might determine who crosses the threshold, but the effect is the same, the creation of a fashionable space for a select minority. With the Maillen Hotel and Apartments, Urbanus has designed a witty, elegant and self-enclosed space of privileged consumption.

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