The client, the program
Fuson International, a large Shanghai based, Chinese conglomerate, owns both Club Med hotels and Cirque du Soleil. Fuson is the client for this project and established a program consisting of a flagship Club Med, an extensive residential development, and lots of retail. Aware of the fact that many developments in the region, which sought to literally and superficially duplicate local style and urban atmosphere have pretty much all failed, Fuson demanded new ideas, attractive to both Chinese and international audiences.
The project site is part of Lijiang valley, located in the northwestern portion of Yunnan and bordering Sichuan, near Tibet and Vietnam. Lijiang experiences a mild subtropical highland climate. The Ancient Southern Silk Road started from Burma (Myanmar), crossed Lijiang, Tibet, journeyed through Iran, and ultimately to the Mediterranean Sea. The area is the political, commercial and cultural center for the local Naxi people and other ethnic groups for hundreds of years.
Located several miles from Lijiang city, near the ancient town of Shuhe, the site has sweeping views of colorful flower fields, extensive marshlands, and even what once was the Flying Tiger airfield. The area is dominated by the gorgeous Jade Dragon Snow mountain range, with 13, year round snow capped jagged peaks.
It measures about 700,000 sm of which 305,000sm is buildable and 400,000sm is ecologically sensitive wetland, to be preserved and to be made accessible. The site includes two historically significant villages, and an extensive network of natural waterways and marshes.
The Naxi people
Lijiang Valley is inhabited by the Naxi people constituting a centuries old, thriving ethnic culture.
Naxi culture is based on native Dongba religious, literary and farming practices, influenced by the Confucian roots of Han Chinese history. Naxi culture and its Dongba religion teach how humans and environment live in harmony. Dongba religion is based on the relationship between nature and man. In Dongba mythology, “Nature” and “Man” are half-brothers, having different mothers. Naxi customs and Dongba religion stress preservation of its environment, and a frugal, village centered organization toward the use of natural resources is still practiced today.
Under a thin veneer alluding to contemporary China, Naxi culture and its Dongba religion, are undiminished. Its embroidery school founded 800 years ago is very active. The Naxi have their own writing, their own distinct language. The language, written in Dongba scripts with its disarmingly naive, beautifully colored icons, is everywhere; Naxi native music, thousands of years old, is inspiration for contemporary Chinese musicians.
Moreover, the Naxi continue to live in their villages, where new homes are built using the same mud wall and wood frame construction passed down from many generations. Naxi houses are built in standard Han style of one courtyard with one, two, three or four buildings around it, sometimes with linked adjoining courtyards. The mud brick and wood structures at first sight have been described as crude and simple in appearance, but a closer inspection reveal elaborate and delicate patterns on casements and doors, elegant pillars and pillar supports, and a very comfortable and airy living environment. Naxi villages and towns have a unique relationship to the surrounding lands: determined largely by a network of narrow canals with flowing water on one or both sides of winding alleyways, connect with the marshes beyond.
Tourism in Lijiang valley is almost exclusively Chinese and extensive. Each time we visited we were the only westerners in sight. It is popular particularly with the millennial crowd. Large groups of young Chinese visit the region hungry for an experience of authentic culture, and by extension, romance. In a few short decades, old towns have become completely commercialized, with all of its courtyard homes reconfigured into either vulgar copies of old Naxi style architecture, or swank interpretations of 5 star living, now referred to as boutique hotels.
Thankfully, the tourist traps end abruptly at the old town’s edges. Surrounding villages are completely untouched, beautifully nestled in the hilly topography, built according ageless Naxi dictates, materials and craftsmanship.
Needless to say, this heavy load of client demand and Naxi culture so dominantly present, resulted in extensive debate within our studio. We had all visited the area several times, traveled around its nooks crannies, and had come to one conclusion independently from one another: given the failed
developments nearby, the crass commercialism of the old towns, the attraction to the area by young people, we needed to be different. We decided to radically reinterpret the web of unifying canals to envelop the entire site, and to reinterpret the traditional courtyard building type into a modern flexible living environment. We wanted be part of the Naxi culture, not a copy.
We recognized that the Naxi culture and Dongba
religion meshed very well Club Med’s attitude towards
sustainability. Club Med’s business model, based on
singles and young families, also fits uniquely well with
millennial tourists. In addition, we noticed the area has
actually few things to do except sight seeing and eating
the Chinese equivalent of fast food. We needed to
accommodate a long list of physical activities and
rigorously amp up the general quality of things.
Using figure-ground plans generated from Naxi towns,
we evolved our own concept as a collection of small
towns. We have residential towns and a retail town. A
big waterbody resembling an octopus pulls everything
together with tentacles stretching into each town. At the
head of the octopus is the Club Med.
The architecture of the individual buildings is based on
the Naxi courtyard model but re- imagined as a flexible
set of building blocks to be personalized and adapted by
its eventual owners. The Club Med on the other hand
grows out of the landscape as separate small,
overgrown mountains, yet detailed using Naxi motifs,
each focused on a significant view.
The plan is configured to include biking, canoeing,
trekking, walking the marshlands, hiking and mountainclimbing. We included a horse barn, and and archery
field. We planned the retail to encourage quality
restaurants offering local and international menus.
Addressing the site as a whole, we proposed to get the
project as close as possible to Net Zero, incorporating
renewable sources as much as possible. Taking
advantage of the rich ecological resources present, we
asked for a structured program to promote bio diversity,
storm water management, and the use of bioswales.
One important factor in the landscape concept are
agricultural fields surrounding the Club Med. We
proposed to expand their existing cooking class activity
to include growing and harvesting herbs and vegetables
under direction from local farmers.
For our studio, the project was an opportunity to
research the possibilities of immersing into, and cross
breeding with, another culture, with the express goal of
creating an entirely new, yet familiar environment for
proponents of either culture. We felt that would be a
particularly worthwhile endeavor given the politics of our
The Lijiang Master plan presented is a competition
entry. We were invited by the client, Fuson International,
to participate in a 4 way competition. Fuson did not
agree with our vision and premiated another company.
Nevertheless we feel this is an important exercise since
it involves a cultural synthesis of sorts.
This description includes partial quotes from several