I spent most of last week in Inner Mongolia as a part-time observer, part-time participant in Ordos 100, a gathering of architects from around the world organized by Ai Weiwei’s FAKE Design Studio and the good folks at Jiang Yuan Water Engineering Co. Ltd. It was a strange few days of socializing, work, worrying, gawking, furious drinking, and compulsive, borderline creepy recording. I’ll probably write a piece or two about it in the end, so for now, I’ll stick mostly to images & captions…
Ordos 100 is part of an ongoing effort by China’s developers to create designer communities in the middle of nowhere. Like the Commune by the Great Wall before it, Ordos 100 proposes a cluster of one-of-a-kind villas, designed by internationally-recognized architects and set in a dusty, wind-swept wasteland miles from civilization. Also like the Commune, it is swathed in developer clichés about stimulating creativity and advancing cultural life. But there are many things that mark Ordos 100 from its predecessors, and I think it would be unfair not to distinguish this project from lesser efforts.
First, the scale: Ordos 100 is situated on a piece of land that stretches almost 200 hectares. It was divided into 100 plots, which were then distributed among 100 different architects. (Hence the name Ordos 100 – there was originally an added gimmick of having the whole complex designed in 100 days, but I’m not sure that’s still in effect…)
Second, the composition of the designers: In opposition to the Great Wall Commune’s emphasis on domestic architects, Ordos 100 is stubbornly, almost offensively, international – the architects come from 29 different countries and every continent apart from Antarctica, but none is from China.
Third, the nature of the site itself: As you can see in some of the images coming up, the Ordos 100 site is, like the Commune’s, very remote. But – as the planning officials repeatedly assured everyone – that is not a matter of design, but of time. Since 2004, Ordos has been building an entirely new city in a vast stretch of desert about 30 minutes outside of the current city, and the 100 villas will become a centerpiece of New Ordos.
And I suppose that allows for a much more speculative fourth point about the future inhabitants of the complex: Where the Commune satisfies the desire for nature and privacy that drove millions of people out of cities in the last century, Ordos 100 seems to offer more of the “Grapes of Wrath” pioneer spirit from the century before. Now, less intro, more pictures…
The vast majority of my time in Ordos was spent inside the Holiday Inn, a squat, sprawled out building, similar in style to what you might find in the American southwest, but enlarged to Chinese scale. I needed two people to assist me in finding my room.
The Holiday Inn Ordos offered more or less everything Ordos offers – food, nightlife, epic monuments to Mongolian history, cultural knick knacks, awkward, friendly interactions with locals… – but in a more regimented, architect-friendly milieu. A few people mentioned that this all-encompassing, rigorously timetabled environment, combined with a scarcity of taxis in the area, created a somewhat claustrophobic, cult-like atmosphere.
Personally, I felt less like the member of a cult, more like the member of an extremely dry reality TV show. There were 5 separate film crews and hundreds of still cameras compulsively documenting every inch of this 4-day event. The atmosphere felt strange, but not inappropriate for an enormous meeting of architects.
To briefly engage in some pop anthropology: During my years observing them in the field, I’ve noticed that the overabundance of uncertainty and disappointment in the life of the typical architect has instilled in him an interest in documentation that could almost be considered a form of OCD. Because years of labor can vanish in an instant – due to a queasy client, unexpected election result, economic downturn, etc. – architects fixate on process, making sure that there will be some legacy from the enormous, unappreciated efforts that they make. This means that any architect party has at least 5 people manically snapping, and it means that 500 or so photos from said party will be available for view on the office server by the coming Monday.
In Ordos, the precariousness of architectural comfort, and the pathology that it inspires, were demonstrated almost immediately.
The mood on arrival was celebratory. Once we’d checked in, everyone was whisked into the grand ballroom for a banquet buffet hosted by the client. I was reunited with a few friends from my old OMA days, and we sat together making jovial small talk and many toasts. After a couple of hours, the architects began to trickle out.
A crowd gathered around the 1: 250 site model, as one designer after another tried to fit her/his model into the plots they’d been assigned.
Gradually, the carefree facade was pulled back, and a more familiar expression was revealed.
For reasons never explained to me, most of the villa models were slightly larger than the space reserved in the site model. The difference was slight, millimeters in many cases, but it was enough to prevent the models from fitting the asymmetrical spaces they were provided.
This triggered a sleepy frenzy of sanding, scraping, and chopping that lasted late into the night. Having enjoyed the mirthful vibe of the dinner room so much, this new atmosphere was almost heartbreaking. The designers would modify their models, try to fit them in place, fail, then scurry back to their sandpaper and exacto blades, cut a little more off, try again, fail again, and so on. By the time I went to bed, all the sanding had left mounds of powder on the tables, giving the scene the appearance of a workaholic Studio 54.
Present throughout this sad slapstick was the author of the masterplan, Ai Weiwei, camera in hand. Weiwei has recently been practicing an art based on engineering personal experiences. The best known example so far is his “Fairytale” – a living exhibit created for Documenta 12 that involved transporting 1001 Chinese people to Kassel, outfitting them with matching clothes and luggage, housing them on bamboo bunks inside an old textile factory, then setting them off to roam the streets of the host city for the three-month duration of the show.
There were many instances during my stay in Ordos when I felt like an involuntary participant in this sort of work. And there were even moments during this first evening when I wondered if the whole thing wasn’t a set up – a true reality TV torture session in which the contestants suffer hardships at the hands of unseen overlords for the amusement of others.
By the next morning, all the pieces were in place and evaluations began. It was required that all the models be made of the same wood, and the resulting monochrome landscape was unflattering for most of the designs. It also emphasized their bloated scale: The brief required each villa to be 1000 km², which meant that most of the plot had to be occupied and neighbors bumped into each other. It was the first and least impressive articulation of the project. A kind of preemptive disappointment.
After a few minutes of whispering over the site model, everyone was ushered into a conference room where 28 architects presented their designs in two marathon sessions. The aspect of the above image that is most important to note is the total absence of caffeinated beverages of any kind. This, combined with the stilted quality of all bilingual public events, made the presentations especially draining.
By the late afternoon, the meeting had become an exercise in endurance in which drowsy Western Hemispherians valiantly attempted to stave off the cumulative effects of jet lag, caffeine withdrawal, poor air circulation, dim lights, and presentation after presentation delivered in soft, flat tones. (Observing this struggle further fueled my reality TV suspicions.)
Disclaimer: There are apparently issues with publishing the architects’ work prior to the completion of the second phase so I’ve intentionally left out any specific names or images of the proposals. That makes this “review” somewhat absurd, but that seems appropriate for an event as odd as Ordos 100.
The presentations themselves were mixed quality, of course. In an effort to somehow position themselves in a unfamiliar context, different architects employed different strategies. One mimicked the Mongolian landscape literally, creating a jagged, undulating form based on the literal translation of a section of the site itself. Another responded to the lack of definition in the landscape with rigid geometry – “Our house is made of brick, but our house is also a brick.” There were also many awkward references to “local” culture – nomadic tents, sloped roofs, courtyards, oriental fans, Mongolian tapestries, imperial stamps, Ming dynasty paintings, etc… These sorts of token gestures are understandable and expected but, for me, totally powerless.
However, my opinion is irrelevant, because these presentations weren’t for me. They were for Cai Jiang, the financial force behind Ordos 100. Mr Cai is, by all outward appearances, the archetypal self-made Chinese man. I spoke to him only briefly, and that conversation was mostly about tequila, so what I know of him is basically a mosaic of amusing details i picked up from others.
I know, for instance, that his billions are derived from the unlikely combination of dairy products and coal. I know he has seven Range Rovers (one for each day of the week) and a bunch of Harleys. I heard that he has a tattoo of Genghis Khan. He left the room before the start of the second presentation and didn’t return until the afternoon session.
Later that evening, the rest of the 100 architects arrived, and the combination of their wide-eyed enthusiasm and everyone else’s sleepy-eyed relief made for a festive atmosphere. We had a lot of fun, so much so that I didn’t even take any pictures.
The next day started with a large ceremony in which various captains of government and industry presented Ordos to us. Afterward I sat in on an interview with the Vice Mayor in which he elaborated his vision for the Jiang Yuan Cultural Creative Industries Park, a 4.5 billion RMB cultural compound that will include a theater, opera house, villas, studios and museums. Ordos 100 is a crucial part of the effort to make the city a more creative place, he said, so he is taking a personal interest in the project.
The word “creative” was repeated throughout his presentation and interview like a mantra. Implicit seemed to be a belief that simply by erecting the appropriate infrastructure creativity will magically gush forth, like oil from a well. (Maybe this makes sense in a province that derives most of its wealth from energy.)
The idea of creativity-generating developments is very hot in China at the moment and most of my friends working here greet it with deep cynicism. But Vice Mayor Wang did employ one piece of impressive creativity when explaining the virtues of New Ordos: “The good thing about the new city,” he explained, “is that there is very little traffic. In old Ordos, the traffic is very bad.” (The genius of this particular talking point will become clear shortly.)
He also explained a few things that are important to understanding why the new city is necessary. Apparently, with the emergence of its energy-fueled wealth, the Ordos government has initiated a drive to urbanize its population. Goat farming is a major part of the rural economy in Inner Mongolia, and excessive grazing has had devastating effects on its environment. The dust storms that the region suffers in the spring and fall are in large part due to excessive goat farming. The government hopes to lure in rural families with discounted housing and the promise of a modern life, thereby speeding up the transition from an agrarian to industrial and post-industrial economy. The less populated countryside can then be replanted and used to attract tourists, or so the plan goes.
After lunch, we took a bus tour of the city and everyone finally got a chance to see some of what the leadership was discussing. As was the case in all our bus trips, we were escorted by police who shouted at residents as we drove through the streets ignoring traffic lights. Being part of an above-the-law convoy was strange, a little like traveling with Michael Jackson. Or Idi Amin maybe.
The police escort and Mercedes sedans maximized our conspicuousness and turned the ride into a festival of gawking. Inside the bus we snapped photos while the people of Ordos peered in incredulously. Parents urged their children to look. People waved and we waved back. Sometimes we waved and no one waved back. A half inch of plate glass separated two populations who knew nothing at all about each other, but were somehow forced together in a relationship of mutual exploitation and amusement.
A metaphor for the project itself?
The bus operators were careful not release their cargo of overenthusiastic foreigners onto the streets of Ordos, so, although we desperately begged, we weren’t allowed to exit the bus until well outside the city center.
And then only to consider a pair of enormous tridents.
The next morning was an open discussion of the Ordos 100 project in which the architects who’d visited at the start of the project a few months earlier were encouraged to provide some knowledge for the new arrivals. I’d been asked to moderate by Weiwei during dinner the night before, so I basically winged it and ended up running around handing the mic to people like Phil Donahue. As if to further the talk show atmosphere, several comments were greeted with audience applause. Expressions of idealism and cynicism received applause of equal substance and duration.
Despite the absurdity of so many aspects of the project, the mood in the discussion was very earnest. The atmosphere felt more collaborative than competitive, probably due to the fact that most of the architects are still emerging and don’t (yet?) carry around the monumental egos of the elite.
Apparently the original plan had been to get the biggest names in architecture to also contribute and the current, less obvious approach was a Plan B. But for me, leaving out the superstars is the key to the project’s success. Repeatedly during the conference I felt grateful that the proceedings weren’t burdened by the intimidating presence of a Koolhaas or Foster or, worse, their self-important proxies.
The discussion closed with a lottery to divide the remaining plots among the second phase architects. This too was handled as a media spectacular – a kind of feel good Pop Idols in which everyone wins.
An inspired, ambitious, “lemme attem!” mood energized the group as we set off to visit the site.
Then we arrived in New Ordos.
At the heart of New Ordos is a plaza that hosts an absolutely enormous monument to horses and a pair of sculptures presenting Mongolian history with all the complexity and gloomy symbolism of a Gothic cathedral. At the back are three government buildings, which I heard are already in use, even though the workers have to make the long commute from the old city each day. At the front is a long, Stalinesque axis that stretches into the emptiness that surrounds the city.
Enormous figures from Mongolian history gaze down the axis. (To the past? The future?) Their demeanor is resolute and immovable.
The disposition of their current incarnations is harder to determine.
At this point, I would like to recall the Vice Mayor’s comment about traffic, because the entire place looks like this – endless rows of block housing with dollhouse features. Their are no markets, no infrastructure to support life. It’s a ghost town for people who died before they arrived.
Still, this being China, nothing is ever totally uninhabited. Even among its half-built mansions and majestic, empty boulevards you can see occasional evidence of life in New Ordos.
The buses eventually came to a stop and we were unleashed on an arid wasteland of a site. Earlier discussions about shared energy systems and establishing a new model for communities around the world felt slightly ridiculous. Excitement over being located next to “the green belt” quickly melted into the endless dunes.
Architects, the puppeteers of modern life, are reduced to meaningless black pixels in the brownness of Ordos.
Along the road stand sad amputee trees. “These trees are all newly planted,” we were told. This is not hard to believe.
Plant life expectancy must be pretty short in a place like this. For now, the struggling shrubs and trees are maintained by a life support system consisting of water trucks and hand applied fertilizer.
There are two buildings on the site, a museum to house Mr. Cai’s art collection and its neighbor – this gallery complex, designed by Weiwei and rendered in his signature gray brick.
After a few hours on site, all the architects were herded into a ditch by the side of the road for a final group photo. I think this photo speaks for itself.
The trip ended with a visit to a Mongolian restaurant housed in a tricked out replica yurt – the traditional Mongolian tent housing that inspired more than one Ordos 100 proposal.
There we were entertained by a musical performance covering “800 years of Mongolian history”. It lasted about 20 minutes and, in a rice wine-fueled moment of lucidity, I began to notice the parallels between this overblown spectacle and our own.
I have no idea whether the Ordos 100 project will be completed. From the looks of it, it will, and I hope it does, because ultimately I think everyone wins – the city gets positive international attention, the client makes money and gets to present himself as a de Medici-style patron of architecture, and the architects have a chance to contribute to what could be a historic project. So, fingers crossed. But even if doesn’t work out, even if shoddy construction or bad sales sink Mr. Cai’s dream, those of us who made the trip to Ordos can feel simultaneously relieved and terrified by the knowledge that it won’t all be for nothing. It’s all on tape and, whether we knew it or not, we all became performers during our four days in the desert.
For more info check the Ordos 100 website.