maDA s.p.a.m.

Lantian, China

In a country where high-rise development happens at high speed, architect Qingyun Ma is taking the opposite approach on a project you might describe as slow building. Like the slow-food movement, it employs local materials and workers, responds to climatic and seasonal conditions, and addresses issues of sustainability as part of an orchestrated plan to benefit its community.

Ma and his Shanghai-based firm, MADA s.p.a.m., have been working on the development, Jade Valley Wine & Resort, for 10 years, creating a series of small structures in a rural part of central China where he grew up. Located in Shanxi Province, it is a stone’s throw from the historic sites of Lantian Man (the million-year-old fossils of a subspecies of Homo erectus) and about 30 miles from the city of Xian. Ma’s work there began with a house for his father and the conversion of a flour mill into a winery and exhibition space. And now, after eight years of design and construction, he has added a guesthouse, Well Hall, as a prototype for housing at the site.

The layout of Well Hall follows that of Chinese courtyard housing, or siheyuan, which has historically been shared by multiple generations of one family. Visitors enter the house on the south through a doorway that leads immediately to a narrow courtyard with the eponymous well in the center. This courtyard provides direct access to bedrooms on the east and west and a kitchen-and-dining wing on the north. A walled patio with a pool extends to the north. As a guesthouse, Well Hall follows a traditional domestic model while recognizing that Chinese families are becoming less traditional. As Ma puts it, “The building is the stabilizing thing, while the family is an ever-evolving concept.” The house can be shared by one extended family, by groups of friends, or even by strangers.

Ma served as both architect and developer of the project, budgeting time, materials, and design into his own schedule and that of its craftsmen. His builders spend most of the year farming but are free during the winter for construction work. Well Hall’s bricks are made in a nearby village, so Ma bought them as needed by the basketful rather than the truckload. This allowed him to build in stages and to change the design as his ideas evolved. In fact, Ma used sketches rather than construction documents to convey his design to the workers. He scaled the building according to the size of a brick, as it made better sense to specify a wall of a certain number of bricks than to break some to fit an idealized measurement.

The design strategy behind Well Hall drew on Ma’s familiarity with Jade Valley, where he spent his childhood. But he came to the design of this house as both an insider and an outsider, having left China to study in the West and then again to become dean of architecture at USC, even as he continues his practice in China. He says his distance from Jade Valley allows him to reinterpret not the form but the character of Well Hall, creating a “violation of tradition within tradition.”

You might say Ma brings an insider’s approach to the outside of Well Hall, and an outsider’s approach to the inside. With its brick walls and clay-tile roof, the exterior is typical of the area. High solid walls and M-shaped roofs in this part of China have historically served dual purposes: collecting water into a central well and deterring thieves from the nearby mountains. The M shape also allowed for two short end beams instead of one long one, an economical way to build in poor villages. Still, the brick walls do not duplicate those of nearby buildings. Ma had local bricklayers alternate red and black bricks to form a unique diagonal pattern in the facade.

The interior reflects Ma’s Western influences. He added a second story to provide loft spaces in the bedrooms, for example, and used elements not typically found in Jade Valley, such as metal-and-glass banisters, a glass skylight, and a wall with angled mullions. And he surfaced some walls and floors with Lantian stone, which comes from a nearby quarry but is usually discarded once the prized jade core is extracted.

Ma filled Well Hall with local art, both old and new, and landscaped the site with hitching posts and millstones collected from the valley. He ornamented the house’s entrance with traditional Chinese tile work and a carved lintel reading Jing Yu (Well Hall). In the bedrooms, he installed antique furniture and contemporary painted chests. In the bathrooms, he carved sinks out of rocks brought up from the nearby river.

Ma hopes Jade Valley Wine & Resort can help bring economic sustainability to the region, employing local residents as builders, grape growers, and wine producers. Granted, wine making is new to Jade Valley. “This is the first wine production in the area since Lantian man,” jokes the architect. But the business connects to Shanxi’s agricultural heritage; it’s “not making plastic shoes,” he says. Ma’s plans for the development call for dozens of buildings. If the pace of Well Hall is any indication, constructing these new structures will not happen quickly. Beyond Jade Valley, fast-paced development will continue to fill China with outstanding (and outlandish) pieces of architecture. Well Hall shows that sometimes slow is good.

MADA s.p.a.m.
No 2,Lane 134 Xinle Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai

Completion Date: August 2008

Gross square footage: 319.68m2

Total construction cost: 1000,000RMB

Owner: JADE VALLEY Wine & Resort Corporation Ltd.