Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and all the largest Chinese cities pulse with everyday life, made of noise and colors, traffic and lights, and characterized by a strong and radiant modernity mingling with the aura of an ancient tradition.
It is hard to imagine China far from all this, especially in a place like Henan, which is one of the most populous provinces of the country, with a population of about 100 million people: but it is here, along the Yellow River, whose basin was the birthplace of the ancient Chinese civilization, that the first Chinese dynasties reigned, and it is also here that uncontaminated and unaffected territories can be found, with their slow and secretive pace of life.
Thus it is here – in this landlocked province, in the north-central part of the country, in a peaceful river valley at the foothills of Wangwu Mountain, which seems to be suspended in time – that the Wang Weijen Architecture firm was called in 2016 to rethink the role that tourist facilities play in the world’s most populous country. The answer to such a contemporary question about the fate of this kind of forgotten areas, which also reveals a strong need for a connection with the past, has been offered to us by the Valley Retreat project in Jiyuan City.
Being an integral part of the surrounding landscape, the design of the retreat integrates itself with the natural topography – the gentle slopes of the hills and the flatness of the narrow body of water – and conveys to the visitors its purpose of preserving such a bucolic nature, inherited from a past made of agriculture, farming and paddy fields.
Starting from four vacant farm houses, within which the rammed earth construction technique was still legible, the designers have wandered how to convert the existing abandoned farmland into an ecological and cultural retreat: the target has been reached enhancing the close relationship between the existing elements – the four vacant buildings and the paddy field pattern – and the added ones, bringing to life a new system, open to a renewed culture of living.
This system is made of 30 rooms and several courtyards and alleyways, platforms, steps and ponds and has been conceived by the Shanghai-based studio as a whole with its surrounding environment, thus creating a special relationship of exchange: it is no accident that the new inward-oriented courtyards are, at the same time, opened in a dialogue with the landscape, giving rise to a linear sequence of spaces along the river stream.
It is right in the solid-and-void relationship, in this kind of continuous perspective’s variation, that this new concept of retreat dwells: it has something to do with getting in and getting out, coming up and getting off, going under the light rays passing through the wooden roofing profile and then stopping where all is still, in the natural environment, and the spatial continuity is mediated only by time shielding systems.
Past and present are connected to each other everywhere inside the project: they dialogue within the concept, the shape and even in the choice of materials and building techniques. This special connection is pointed out in order to describe the mission of the entire work, that architects say is «to promote local cultural tourism». That explains the particular attention paid to the articulation of roof tiles, especially within the existing buildings’ renovation, or even timber structures; it also explains the coordination between the old and new rammed earth textures, that translates the vernacular building types into the architectural addition of the project. The past-and-present relationship can be deducted from the tectonic logics between the steel trusses and the timber purlins and rafters, as well as from the techniques of the masonry construction of the courtyard walls.
Within the Valley Retreat there is no need for any escape routes, because everything is close at hand: the spatial continuity between interior and exterior and between different interior areas marks a slow but steady rhythm, that has the power to provide a sense of well-being thanks to the colors of nature, also brought within the interior spaces by the designers.
The use of gravel and stone for the courtyards invites to enter common areas as the use of rammed earth in the natural-enlightened halls seems to help taking the visitor right inside the private rooms, where everything seems to be perfectly in place, away from the passing of time and far from urban chaos. The concept of a new kind of slow and vernacular tourism is fulfilled in this idea of retreat: the architectural shape reveals its true cathartic nature, becoming a way to enjoy the silence coming from the earth, clearly echoing in the spaces made by man.