Emerging from the dense green valley of Anji County in Zhejiang Province, China, the stone-hewn form of Wu Shan Retreat becomes one with nature.
Designed by Joburg-based Peter Rich Architects, the project is the next addition to the internationally-recognised firm’s diverse portfolio of projects, including museums, cultural and community buildings, housing projects, and sustainable neighbourhoods. Best known for winning World Building of the Year 2009 at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona for Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre and having an entire exhibition dedicated to his beautiful architectural drawings at the Venice Biennale in 2018, Peter Rich is no stranger to working abroad, having projects and proposals in Chicago, Rwanda, and South Sudan.
He is committed to designing with, not for, clients through a committed process of spending quality time engaged with those for whom he is designing. But perhaps most noteworthy, Peter Rich Architects challenges the traditional design narrative, flipping the script to an era where African architecture and home-grown ideas are increasingly influencing the international stage.
We have a client in China who, through our website and publication of our work, identified us as architects who design legacy projects. Our client, Weiping Jin, is an extraordinary individual. He produces high-end padded winter coats for the Russian and Italian markets as his core business and has always wanted to be an architect. It is his vision to contest the prevalence of international brand name hotels in the beautiful Anji mountain region of southeastern China by building a bespoke nature retreat that is tactile and timeless. He wants holidaymakers from Shanghai and Hangzhou, which are 200 km and 65 km away respectively, to be able to come and engage with nature in an authentic way.
The retreat that he aims to build must not only be in synergy with nature but must also be compatible with things that are important in Chinese culture: the dragon, the phoenix, and yin and yang to name a few. These mythical creatures and philosophical concepts are norms in Chinese culture and often overlooked by local architects. This compelled Jin to look for foreign architects who would have a fresh take on the spectacular natural context and rich cultural heritage.
From the inception of the project in 2016, Jin realised the importance of establishing a remarkable landscape before pursuing the revenue earning accommodation components of the retreat. He had visited Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town and been to our own garden in Johannesburg, which both showcase the possibilities of landscaping, gardening, and stone masonry and served as a source of inspiration for what he was attempting to do in China. He realised that before he got older, he needed to intensely immerse himself in creativity and establish a worthwhile discourse with other creative people in order to achieve his dream.
It was a huge learning curve for us. Firstly, there was the language obstacle, where the client couldn’t speak English and everything had to be translated, which was a very lengthy process, and secondly, the vast distance of the expedition had its own limitations. To overcome these difficulties, Jin invited us to China to experience the site first-hand and employed a translator to assist with the language barrier.
When we met Jin, we realised that he had a Zen-type sensibility when he worked with stone. Even though Zen is a Japanese concept, we started searching for a Chinese equivalent. Jin had sensibility at a physical scale of making stone pathways and I started to draw the pathways and explore concepts through drawing. I drew long drawings inspired by Chinese prints and the drawings started taking on a Chinese composition as the vegetation and mountains were very different to where we came from in Africa.
We explored the vernacular architecture in nearby villages, looking for clues in the old towns where thresholds of entry and articulation of space reveal traditional cultural practices.
Both client and architect used hand drawings as a conversation tool to communicate conceptual ideas. It is unusual that you have a client who communicates with sketches and we would respond with sketches of our own, until both parties were in agreement with the idea.
There was no overall master plan and no clear brief, which was often frustrating. Creative decisions were made in a collaborative way as the project progressed. Jin sincerely believed that Buddha had brought my son, Rogan, and I into his life, and often spoke about how we had arrived in China at exactly the right time in his life to inspire him to build something significant that would inspire future generations long after his lifetime.
The difficulty we had is that, when you are designing a retreat, you normally have a master plan and operators that are brought on board. Jin kept operators away and didn’t want them to limit our creativity. It was also the first major development that he had worked on and he had to learn that there are often conflicts of interest if you assume the role of both owner and operator.
Our mandate was to complete conceptual design and design development stages only and then hand over to a local architect of record who would liaise with the Chinese authorities and complete the construction drawings based on our designs. Even though the architect of record has stayed true to our designs for the most part, we haven’t had control over the interiors, which perhaps we would have handled differently. You learn very quickly as an architect that you can’t control every aspect of a project.
The project has been in progress for seven years now and we are very fortunate to have this ongoing stream of work continue through COVID-19. Jin has realised that he wants to work with us for the rest of his life as he loves what we have done so far. A mistake many Chinese developers make is they copy designs from elsewhere in the world. I taught Jin that you don’t have to copy but you can take the essence of an idea that you’ve seen elsewhere and reinterpret it in the new context, so it takes on an added meaning. And that’s the important lesson here.
We transferred an African thing into an Asian thing. It’s a hybridised situation that is not multicultural but specifically Chinese. The hybridisation of materiality and that sort of thing we’ve learned from our wellspring of work that we have done in Africa and now we have found relevance for translating it with a whole new sensibility in Asia.
Architect and Founder
Peter Rich Architects