When China embarked in fast-forward fashion on a transformation from agricultural nation to industrial powerhouse, people barely noticed the simultaneous rupture of its historical foundations. Many of the traditional alleyways and courtyard homes, known as hutongs in Beijing and longtangs in Shanghai, were paved over for glitzy towers signalling modernity. But things are changing. The country’s design vanguard is recognizing the idiosyncrasies of history and the sense of place they evoke, embracing rather than erasing the old. As Dong Gong, founder of Beijing-based Vector Architects, puts it, “Architecture is a medium to closely connect ourselves with the world we live in.” His site-specific work – including the Alila Yangshuo hotel in southern China – exemplifies this new ethos among China’s latest crop of architects. Grafting novel ideas onto existing foundations, their goal is to ensure everything new is old again.
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China’s new architecture movement enhances site specificity and heritage through contemporary materials and technologies – and Vector Architects is one firm at the forefront. “Architecture needs to address the context and respond to the real problems of social, political and environmental parameters,” says Dong Gong, the firm’s founder. At the Alila Yangshuo hotel, in southern China’s Guangxi autonomous region, his team preserved the brick structures of a former sugar mill. They drew inspiration from local geology and, in a nod to the region’s cave-riddled karst foundation, placed the hotel spa underground, where black-sugar treatments recall the site’s past. Access is via a spiral staircase that softens the look of poured concrete.
Taking a cue from the existing factory buildings for the design of the hotel’s two new structures, the Vector team has beamed the past into the future. Chinese architecture often centres on a courtyard; at Alila, this tradition continues, with sightlines across a shared outdoor space connecting old and new. Mimicking brick masonry by layering hollow and solid concrete blocks, the architect created walls that filter light while revealing a pixelated image of the world outside. “We have faith in the primitive, tranquil and eternal power embodied in architecture. It can travel through time and resist unrest and uncertainty,” says Dong Gong.
The landscape in the Yangshuo region is known for its karst topography, characterized by abruptly rising cone-shaped mountains. While the hotel’s overarching design enhances tradition, it also strengthens a connection with nature. The latticed canopy brings bamboo from the hills right to the guests. “Bamboo, like timber, represents both a lightness and a warm feeling. We used it to balance the heavy feeling of the concrete and the modular rigidity of the building,” explains Dong Gong. The reflecting ponds, which mirror the nearby Li River, lend their version of softness.
Dong Gong and his team housed the guest rooms and suites in the new buildings, where walls are made of wood-pressed poured concrete interspersed with sections of concrete-block screens and walkways that take in gardens and nature alike. The wood imprint may bring to mind old houses from the countryside, but the material choice is firmly rooted in modernity. The minimalist esthetic also keeps the focus on the heritage buildings on the site.
The Alila is nestled in a notch between two peaks that form part of the Yangshuo region’s signature karst mountains. To amplify the effect of the dramatic natural landscape, the new buildings were deliberately kept low-slung. The Li River flows by both the hotel and a metal structure that was once the truss for loading sugar onto riverboats. This industrial remnant has been reimagined as the frame for the pool, but it also symbolizes a framework for where architecture in China is headed today. Says Dong Gong, “Architecture enables us to be touched by a beam of light and its shadow, a piece of sky and earth, and a block of stone and brick – to live in it with faith and humbleness.”