Imagine a secluded retreat nestled in a forest.
Scattered amongst the trees and petite valleys are a dozen houses designed by big-name, award winning architects. They're each a self-contained home, with distinct character and materials, available for rent for a group getaway.
Now invoke this image in China on the outskirts of Nanjing. Include an art gallery, conference center and more accomodation. Make it so big that it takes 10 years to reach 80% completion and runs up a $160m bill. Construction slows to almost dormant. Open the park for viewing anyway; warts and cranes and beauty.
What you have is the amazing and totally bonkers Sifang Art Project.
The centerpiece is Steven Holl's art museum, defined by the translucent gallery wing held aloft above the main complex. It feels ethereal, walking up a rectangular spiral tube being offered only a combination of muted, inescapable natural light and choice vantage points over the valley.
The art plays third fiddle to the sensation and view. On our visit the collection seemed themed around the political symbolism of farts and poop. Twelve year old Drew would have been in his element. Luckily there's one of Yayoi Kusama's Pumpkins in the gardens outside to bring things back to relative normality.
The houses and pavillions are the real reason to be here. They're spread around the lake and amongst the trees like architectural jewels. It feels unprecedented, especially on a snowy winter morning with barely any other visitors. We're left to walk from buiding to building, squash our noses against the windows and marvel at what it must have taken to bring so many big names and allow them to do anything they wanted.
The reason is right there. A blank-cheque to build a dream-house with almost zero functional agenda for an art-craving client. Do it well, in fact do it at all, and you've just made a connection to the China powerhouse. Who would say no?
Well not Sean Godsell, or Luis M Mansilla & Emilio Tunon, or David Adjaye, or Mathias Klotz, or Kazuyo Sejim & Ryue Nishizawa or Matti Sanaksenaho & Pirjo Sanaksenaho, or Odile Decq or Ettore Sottsass or Alberto Kalach.
The result is quite brilliant, a neighbourhood of unbelieveable architectural homes. Each on a different scale but generally representing a five bedroom house. They're all unique, incorporating materials and forms that only the greatest architectural designers could do.
Adjaye expressed his trademark slab of sheer building through walls of stacked shingles. It is in a long, thin tube of a building, opening only on two sides it looks impenetrable from the outside, stark but somehow cosy on the inside.
Zhang Lei's five-story stack of rooms wrapped by white bands of balcony looks the most alien. Nestled in the trees down a valley nook with little surrounding reference it is deceptively large and obsidian.
We were mostly taken by Mansilla and Tunon's Fo-Shou house. It forms an amoeba of rooms, the skin of which is huge panels of curved glass... then all entirely encased in a cage of bamboo. Inside it is pristine, minimal, bare, futuristic. Outside robust, organic and secluded.
A handful of the buildings are not yet finished and don't look in any rush to be completed. The hilltop around Ai Wei Wei's 'Six Rooms' features a fine selection of badly weathered building sites. It's almost a showcase into leaving things irrecoverably too long.
Which is a theme running into the larger projects within the Sifang development. A monstrous building complex of apartments and exhibition rooms and ponds looks like it was forgotten a couple decades ago yet new construction is still going strong across the water in Sottsass' Recreation Center.
We could definitely live in the bamboo amoeba though... even if it means a four hour commute to Shanghai every day. Well only if the construction noise can give us peace on the weekends. I hope the Sifang Art Park can be opened for guests before the buildings' lack of upkeep deteriorates them - we'll be first in line.