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Neri & Hu's non-denominational, multi-faith sanctum in Suzhou

Sitting in the grounds of a hotel complex, this hall in Suzhou provides space for contemplation and personal reflection

The 14km2 historic centre of Suzhou, 100 kilometres west of Shanghai, is a UNESCO world heritage site of landmark temples, bridges, pagodas and the ubiquitous Chinese gardens.

The remaining 8,474.5 square kilometres of Suzhou administrative region envelops various farms, villages and urban areas, as well as the vast Industrial Park to the east and Suzhou Eco-Town to the west.

As part of the city’s ever-growing ambitions, the project to develop its northern region, especially the area partitioned between the motorway, lake and Shanghai-Nanjing railway line, is well under way. It was kick-started by the Italian-style Suzhou Village – an out-of-town retail centre a few years ago – and now the area is morphing into a creative and leisure zone incorporating film studios, restaurants, a theme park, recreation complexes and, of course, hotels. Every year, the city of Suzhou alone makes in excess of £16billion from tourism.

The latest of the luxury brand hotels to arrive is Hotel One, which is a completely new concept for China: a holistic wellbeing and mindfulness leisure centre for the anxious well-heeled businessman. This is an experimental venture, hoping to tap into the 40 per cent of Chinese urbanites who claim to be stressed out. It is not for the faint-hearted nor those light of wallet. On arrival, guests will be given a full medical examination and provided with a personal wellness instructor. Fortunately, our flamboyant host, Raymond, welcomed us at the door armed only with soothing hot towels: ‘Welcome to Sangha’, he gushes ‘a place where you can rediscover yourself’.

The masterplanners – and owners – of the complex are Octave, a company comprising New York-based architect Calvin Tsao (described on his website as a ‘provocateur, broker, shaman’) and his brother Frederick Tsao, chairman of IMC Pan Asia Alliance Group. They have brought a little bit of what they call ‘the science of wellbeing’ to the Chinese market. Symbol, if it were needed, that Communist hardship is over, at least for some.

Plan suzhou chapel by neri hu

Plan suzhou chapel by neri hu

Ground floor plan - click to expand

Harmony is the watchword and nothing must upset the calm impartiality of the offering: the healing powers of the service provision and of the architecture. While the entire hotel complex may have Buddhist overtones I am reassured that it is Buddhism as a state of mind rather than a religion. Possible tensions arising from any hint of religious advocacy in a country where the one true authority is the atheistic state are to be staunchly rejected. It is, I am told, simply a ‘nurturing environment’ where everything has been thought through for maximum soothing power. The restaurant, for example, serves a ‘bold paradigm of wellness dining’ and Tze Ling Li, design management director, points out that such is the respect for the low carbon footprint of the project that ‘all the stone is artificial’.

‘This, the management insists, is not a chapel or a church but a strictly non-denominational multi-faith space’

Sangha is therefore a hotel complex that acts purely as a reinvigorating sanctuary. Indeed, the small single building that I have come to see has had the label ‘chapel’ expressly expunged from the resort’s literature. This, the management insists, is not a chapel or a church but a strictly non-denominational multi-faith space. Interchangeably a sanctum sanctorum or a space for personal reflection. It also hosts music recitals and corporate gatherings to highlight that this building celebrates its connection to Mammon more than to politically sensitive metaphysics.

This, then, is a non-religious religious building with strong religious overtones. Designed by Shanghai-based architects, Neri & Hu, it is a contemplative retreat embedded within a retreat for contemplation. It can be used by those staying at the hotel but with the possibility for it to be used by the wider stressed-out community.

The building is rather innocuous from a distance: a white cube sitting on top of a brick wall. The heaviness of the dark slate-grey brick contrasting with the weightless quality of the white box that, as I arrive, blends with the grey overcast skies beyond. The architect Lyndon Neri says that the brick’s roughness will ‘age and gather patina over time, while the white maintains a mysterious purity’.

Located along the winding entrance route, we drive by as if passing a public building on the side of the road. Indeed, several of the buildings – like the Town Hall, Gallery, etc – have been so named in order to create a sense of a living community (albeit a Portmeirion-esque fantasy one). To emphasise a broader contextual connection with Suzhou, the building’s colours are a reference, says the architect, to traditional local housing reflecting the black roofs and white rendered walls throughout the city. But it is a black/white inversion of Suzhou style; here we have dark solidity on the ground combined with the white above.

‘This, then, is a non-religious religious building with strong religious overtones … a contemplative retreat embedded within a retreat for contemplation’

The route to our goal follows two paths, one is straightforward, the other circuitous, just like life. We choose the maze-like promenade that weaves around and back, dog-legs around blind corners, up gentle slopes and down steps. The architect says that it is ‘an intentionally prolonged journey’. The fleeting sense of disorientation is tempered by the knowledge that there is but one route and we will arrive at the destination. These dense walls restrict the sightlines and we amble downwards for full immersion and rise up for occasional glimpses. There are too some resting points along the way, places to peruse and look out.

These 800mm thick solid dividing walls are mass concrete embedded with reclaimed bricks from local residential demolitions. The architect has applied a ‘non-symbolic’ decorative relief of what is technically called ‘in’, ‘out’ and ‘flush’ brick patterns. I am assured that these are not symbolic, but designed to catch light in different ways and create texture and variation along the length of walls, breaking up the mass of these heavy freestanding structures.

And so to the building; an 80m x 80m cube floating above the brickwork. Neri says: ‘The white box has a layered facade. The inner layer is white plaster wall with cut openings, while the outer layer is white perforated pleated metal. The outer layer, depending on light and weather conditions, varies between reflective and translucent given its material properties. The inner layer suggests shadows and depths during the day, while glowing through each aperture at night.’

Section suzhou chapel by neri hu 2

Section suzhou chapel by neri hu 2

Section - click to expand

The building itself is straightforward. It is an open volume comprising a main hall. That’s it. On the ground floor are a couple of antechambers, cupboards, toilets, inner courtyards and staircases that lead up to a mezzanine floor and eventually to a roof space. For a simple building, the staircase journey is quite an event, navigating nooks and crannies, encountering changes in direction, protruding elements and a variety of different windows – looking outwards or into the main hall, windows at ground level or at a height, windows that look straight through or via the perforations of the external cladding. The floor and first flight of stairs is finished in power-floated concrete from then on, an occasional terrazzo dado is separated from the wall plaster by a beautifully recessed brass handrail.

‘Walking into the main hall is like walking into a church organ’

These examples of pleasing workmanship are brought to the fore in the main hall and mezzanine where the joiners have excelled themselves. Walking into the main hall is like walking into a church organ: the vertical oak slats creating a riot of pointers heavenward looking for all the world like a Gothic Perpendicular church. The vaulting is a simple inverted ‘V’ forming a conventional roof angle. We are able to see through these rafters to the steel box ceiling soffit above. Neri says: ‘The interior strategy of inserting a “house” like volume addresses notions of domesticity and human scale’.

Impressively, or sadly, depending on your viewpoint, the oak timberwork is actually a 3mm timber veneer over a rectangular hollow-section aluminium structural frame, apparently because of local fire regulations. The veneer craftsmanship is hugely impressive with no joints or edges visible. It looks, smells and feels like wood … but when you tap it, it rings like hollow metal. Like a church organ, in fact.

A couple of other points of contention: the sight lines from the mezzanine are inadequate for watching a ground-level event but, then again, maybe that makes it an ideal location for isolated reverie. The glass panes could do with some manifestation (having banged my head) but that, of course, will ruin the clarity of view through to interior and exterior spaces. And speaking of spoiling the concept, the blight of the fire officer means that the delicate tracery of the timber slats is peppered with fire notices, directional signs and warning notices. For such a small space, this is completely unnecessary. Added to this, the pitched roof soffit has a monstrous sprinkler blaster unit – it may reduce the need for lots of sprinkler heads, providing as it does, powerful spray coverage of the entire area, but it certainly catches the eye. Maybe the head-bowed penitent will never know. All in all, these are minor gripes in what is an interesting architectural space.

As I was driven back to Suzhou, rushing to a meeting in mounting traffic, flustered as we edged slowly forward in mile after mile of backed-up traffic, honking horns and expectorating drivers, the appeal of respite and a quiet cup of Oolong tea never seemed more appealing.

Multi-faith Chamber

Architect: Neri & Hu

Project team: Lyndon Neri, Rossana Hu Nellie Yang, Jerry Guo, Begona Sebastian, Shirley Hsu, Dana Wu, Maia Peck, Brian Lo, Simin Qiu

Photographs: Pedro Pegenaute 

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