Like the notion of cultivating Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and sauvignon blanc grapes in China, Qingyun Ma’s design of GateHall grafts Western concepts onto local Asian roots. This latest addition to the architect’s Jade Valley Winery, outside of Xi’an, in the center of the country, is a hybrid that’s simultaneously familiar and odd. A multipurpose three-story building, which includes an art gallery as well as dining and guest rooms, shares a lineage with nearby farmhouses in its simple rectangular footprint, poured-concrete frame, and river-stone cladding. But the 21,000-square-foot building has been warped by foreign influences—so much so that one facade, which is almost completely glazed, has a gabled roof, broken by a fractal-inspired dormer, an elevation with no true precedent in Chinese or imported architecture. Even seemingly indigenous elements become subverted by alien concepts, including an entry court with stone walls nearly 20 feet high, defying local tradition in their dimensions.
Since Ma, principal of MADA s.p.a.m., started making French-style wines in 2000 in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains, this Chinese-born architect—who was dean at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture from 2007 to 2017—has been building his winery as an experiment in cultural and architectural cross-fertilization. He started with a much acclaimed stone-and-bamboo house for his father and went on to create a series of structures for making and tasting wine, as well as mini-hotels in new and renovated buildings.
Ma grew up in the city of Xi’an, but his parents come from this rural area, so he feels a connection to it and wants to revive the local economy with wine-making and tourism. In recent years, newly affluent Chinese from rapidly growing urban centers have developed a taste for European-style wines, while rediscovering the lure of the Chinese countryside—now seen as a healthy getaway and a link to an ancient culture in which scholars, poets, and painters found inspiration in forests and mountains.
“The goal is to integrate culture, agriculture, and nature,” says Ma. “In China, we talk about lao jia, or ‘old home,’ which is the place you come from. I see GateHall as a ‘home at old home,’ not specifically for my family but for everyone who has roots in the countryside. It will be both a memory of old times and a promise of the future.”
Called GateHall because it’s at the base of a gravel road leading uphill to Jade Valley’s main winery structures, the new building plays on notions of duality. Not purely a gate—which is either open or closed—it’s a place where people can linger to see art, drink wine, dine, even spend a night. It’s both private and public, a threshold and a destination. “In Chinese, there are the terms men-shi (market gate) and men-lei (guest gate), referring to public and private entries,” says Ma. “GateHall is both.”
Approaching it from a narrow rural road, visitors enter through an opening in the high-walled side yard. On the ground floor is a reception area with art displayed in both a double-height gallery and more intimate, single-height spaces. The top floor provides generous cooking and eating areas beneath the gabled roof, while sleeping quarters for tourists and artists-in- residence are on the second and third levels. There’s a wine cellar in the basement.
Fusing opposites has been part of Ma’s identity since his undergraduate years at Tsinghua University, in Beijing, and graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. After working for Kling Lindquist in Philadelphia and Kohn Pederson Fox in New York, he returned to China to set up his own practice, MADA s.p.a.m., before heading back to the States for his deanship at USC a few years later. Now he plans to use Jade Valley as a base for his American Academy in China, for students from design schools there and elsewhere. The larger goal is to transform part of China’s countryside by bridging it economically and culturally to cities and to the 21st century. “Tradition needs to be open to the future,” says Ma. “We need both to respect and violate it.”