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Xixi Wetland Center in China by Atelier Fronti

Wang Yun’s thoroughly Modernist buildings, set in China’s only national wetland park, have been left unoccupied − symptomatic of China’s unfulfilled journey from here to modernity

‘The Chinese people who worked with Modernism have been erased from history’, says Wang Yun casually as we chat over a coffee. The rhetoric is carefully chosen, for he speaks as a Modernist, and he is referring to the purging of Modernism from the Chinese architectural canon.

Our conversation begins on a wet day in a faux-traditional hotel foyer in Hangzhou. There follows 10 hours of intense and heated architectural discussion interspersed with several huge meals, beers and more coffee. Even as we eat or walk around his Xixi Wetland Centre project, there’s no let up.

‘When we look back in 50 years time, we will realise that it was important that someone like me carried on doing it,’ he says.

This is not cockiness, for Wang Yun is relentlessly self-effacing, but it is his mission. He fervently believes in the transformative potential of architectural radicalism. In this way, he carries the torch of avant-gardism handed down by those erased exponents from the 1920s. For him, Modernism is a liberating project. It is a socio-political critique as well as a material design project, and one that is sadly lacking today.

As far as he is concerned, the last century has seen a particular vacuum open up in Chinese architectural development, which reflects the political repudiation of progress. And so he finds himself compelled to plough a lonely furrow to demonstrate the social and intellectual value of architecture and the potential to change. However, the marginalisation of Modernism within China has resulted in him building just 10 projects in the 10 years since he founded his practice. Fortunately, he is finally getting recognition and is one of five architects designing for the Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

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The Xixi Wetland Center has been unoccupied since its completion.

Wang Yun is associate professor at Peking University in Beijing, where he gives ‘inspirational’ talks on the subject of Modernism. (Our translator for the day is one of his students, Zhang Han, and that is her description of his lectures.) Rather than a wizened academic, Wang Yun is a younger-than-his-40-something-years chief architect of Atelier Fronti. (‘Fronti’ means nothing, he admits, but sounds a little like frontière). He was born in Harbin in the far northern reaches of Heilongjiang Province, a ‘frontier’ state, mid-way between North Korea and the USSR. There architecture is infused with a Russian design-style, earning it the nickname ‘Oriental Moscow’.

At the Beijing Institute, he became attracted to the idea of Postmodernism, prompted by lecturers who condemned Modernism for its lack of humanity. When he got an opportunity to go abroad in the ’90s to see Postmodern buildings for himself, he discovered that they ‘expressed their totality in photographs alone’ − the physical experience of ‘being in and around them added nothing’. By contrast, he found that Modernist buildings impressed him for their emotional impact. And it is this human ‘connection’ that he is constantly striving to capture in his own work.

‘The value of architecture has to be found by someone who understands and appreciates it. Most of the public are interested in how it functions or how comfortable it is, but there is more to it than that.’ There is obviously a need, he says, to ‘meet people’s needs, but it also has to have the power to touch you; to excite the heart’. He wants buildings that are ‘not just about what you see, but the experience of being in them’.

Chinese friends have advised him against using Modernist white − which is the colour of mourning. Maybe he is not helping himself, but he is unfazed at such superstition − even though he knows that he sometimes has to play the game. His renunciation of traditional mores is not pig-headedness, but stems from a belief that pristine white buildings enable the spaces to speak for themselves more clearly. For him, understanding architecture, like art or classical music, is inherently difficult and it is not for everyone: but the simpler the form, the more undistracted thought can go into understanding it.

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Site plan of the Xixi Wetland Center

The shock of the new

We arrive at the Xixi Wetland Park as the miserable drizzle continues to fall. Xixi is an 11 square kilometre natural reserve and the only national wetland park in China. We park the car and head along the entrance road, where workmen are busying themselves in the mud, planting the end of year budget’s supply of trees. As we walk through a rusty security gate, the concrete of his Wetland project comes into view, blending into the misty grey sky.

I had only seen the immediate post-completion photographs before I arrived. These were dramatic architectural images of pristine boxes in the verdant hills … in glorious sunshine. What confronted me was something else. Instead of sharp, crisp Modernist blocks, I was greeted by sad, grey ramshackle dereliction. It seemed that I was in the right location, but in the wrong time. I was reminded of a student trip to Villa Savoye in the ’70s − prior to its restoration − when it seemed that I was walking into a living relic. Here in Xixi, it once again seemed like I had entered the 1930s. The fact that we bumped into two students from Tsinghua University, who were on a pilgrimage to this derelict site, only added to the surreal quality of the day.

The buildings looked forlorn, overgrown, dirty and rain damaged. Rubble was strewn along the paths and weeds grew over the roofs. Many windows and doors hadn’t been fitted since completion in 2010, leading to erosion of internal finishes and corrosion of some surfaces. However, even so, I was still struck by how powerful it looked. It had an air of tragedy that seemed to sum up Wang Yun’s earlier story of China’s renunciation of the truly modern.

We walked over a short bridge whose faux-Chinese arch and inappropriate balustrading caused Wang Yun to sigh audibly. ‘That shouldn’t be there’, he said, ‘but then again, all these trees blocking the elevations shouldn’t either.’ As we walked, he pointed out, apologetically, that he had no control over the externals even though he had designed and specified everything. At one point, the external works contractor had wilfully cut back the concrete that connected the inside to the outside as a literal act of demarcating contractual responsibilities.

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Stained concrete and an aperture left without a door

Wang Yun explained the story: ‘The local government wants to promote this area through a series of projects within a much larger masterplan. Twelve practices were given a different area, with certain rules across the full site. My site was designated as a place for artistic creation and academic exchanges and I was allocated a local client group called ‘Xileng Yinshe’ (which is a famous arts group by West Lake in Hangzhou). They decided to create a project for a new arts group called ‘Xixi Xueshe’. The problem is that even though these clients have great ideas, they are not the users, and the local government only looks for users after completion. In other words, the Xixi Xueshe arts group still doesn’t exist.’

So, the overall scheme, with a total construction area of 3,835 square metres, costing £620,000, comprises a range of buildings for a fictitious arts community.

But what awaits them should Xixi Xueshe come into being, is a wonderful series of spaces of light and shadow, of human scale and social engagement. Within the 10 or so buildings, there is a huge range of permutations (and modifications) on Corbusier’s five points of architecture. There’s a staircase taking up an entire elevation leading to a roof garden; a small concrete auditorium for performances; and a rationalist white box set in a lake (that was designed to be only accessible by boat until the Chinese officials realised that it was a breach of site rules and insisted on running a roadway around the back). There is a series of workshop spaces flooded with light; there are dramatic internal spiral stairs, and immense external ramps (awash with moss and lichen); and there are breathtaking interior planes that are principally artistic in their conjunction with each other and in their interplay of daylight and shade.

Each concrete surface is crazed with shrinkage cracks and eroded by water damage, but Wang Yun still has pride in his work. He points to a drip moulding that the builders have introduced to the string of an internal spiral stair and shakes his head wearily. ‘It should have been flush’, he insists, oblivious to the chaos around him.

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Dramatic spiral staircase without fixtures or fittings

Hoping to dispel a few myths about the dour nature of Modernism, Wang Yun allowed himself a few playful gestures. He has introduced a curious silo-shaped lavatory in one of the studio spaces which has been hand-crafted in situ (a sacrilege to many didactic Modernists) in order to take the vent pipe to external air.

At the end of another block, the upper corridor opens out into a wavy enclosure (‘a space for people to meet and play in’ explains Wang Yun). He notes that, upon seeing this space, colleagues were amazed at his Gehry-esque conversion to CAD abstraction, but he says he designed this ‘shape’ simply to give lie to the belief that curved spaces can only be designed by software packages. ‘I scribbled this shape on a piece of paper until I liked it’, he says, ‘then used Photoshop to make it presentable. The contractor didn’t have any problem building it.’ It is a dramatic volume. Unfortunately, it is also a waterlogged, stained, desolate space, with each of us slipping on the algae that mats the floor. But it is still easy to envisage the potential for this unique public/private enclosure.

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The communal residential and office development faces the river: the once pristine white concrete is fading

Commenting on the scheme’s demise, Wang Yun is circumspect: ‘It is really fortunate for a designer like myself, to have a client and a proprietor accept the original Modernist design. But while it all began so happily, it has ended up with great sadness.’

Since spending 10 years on a masters and PhD at the University of Tokyo, Wang Yun has travelled widely and sought to document the optimal − or rather, the ‘preferred’ − spatial arrangement of urban and rural settlements across the world. This mapping is part of his growing experience, knowledge and appreciation of how people really live.

It is an exploration of social, spatial and material conditions in order to better understand people’s lived experience in real conditions. In other words, Wang Yun is a humanist and his fellow-feeling, his belief in reason and universality and hope for ‘another age where East and West will communicate with a common imagination’ shines through any amount of grime covering this project.

As we say our farewells, Wang Yun informs me that the local government has commissioned him to design and build another phase. As they say: only in China.

Fact File

Architect: Atelier Fronti

Photographs: Gilles Sabrie, Yao Li, Wang Yun

Readers' comments (2)

  • Magazine has terrible misprint, pages 56-57 appear twice in the digital version & in the printed version two pages are ommited from the first two pages of the Attelier Fronti profile.

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  • Fraser Donachie

    ... not to worry. A wonderful-looking project with no end users is so intriguing! It reminded me of out-of-season seaside architecture here in the UK. The article made an interesting counter-point to Peter Buchanan's 'Transcend and Include' essay in the same issue. It seems as if Wang Yun had very similar ideas to those of Hertzberger, Ambasz and Zumthor but has deliberately selected 'modernism' as his vehicle for delivery. Using Ambasz's 'Casa de Retiro Espiritual' as an example of progressive sustainable architecture is just as odd as Xixi, given its unique and elitist status. When will the 'Big Rethink' deal with how to re-model Pinner or Hatch End to a tight budget? That's what I want to know ...

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