This villa is located in plot ORDOS project.
Architects: drdh architects Location: Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China Project Team: David Howarth, Daniel Rosbottom, Richard Marks, Matthew Phillips, Kazi Cisarova, Jonathan Connelly, Nuwan Wijetunge, Alessandro Milani, Yeung Kin Bong Structural Consultant: Andy Greig / Greig Ling Engineers Environmental Consultant: Max Fordham / Max Fordham Consulting Engineers Design year: 2008 Construction year: 2009-2010 Curator: Ai Weiwei, Beijing, China Client: Jiang Yuan Water Engineering Ltd, Inner Mongolia, China Constructed Area: 1,000 sqm aprox
“… as the philosophers maintain, the city is like some large house, and the house is in turn like some small city…” Alberti: Book I Cap. 9
The character of the house establishes continuity with the tradition of the villa, as a compact and ordered figure placed between city and landscape.
The villa stands on the edge of the new city quarter, away from the public buildings and at a distance from the park. In responding to this peripheral placement, the house takes on its own sense of civic and public responsibility. A public route along one edge of the plot forms the beginning of a meandering journey to the central green space. This is articulated by a tiny public space, placed hard against the South West corner, from where a passer by can admire the ensemble of neighboring buildings.
Rather than dispersing programme around courtyards, maximizing the perception of scale externally, the villa is reduced to a singular dense volume from which secondary elements extend into, or are carved out of, the landscape. These offer a series of intimate, domestic scaled exterior spaces, taking advantage of orientation. The majority of the site is defined by trees, an abstracted nature that might be thought of, simultaneously, as a little forest or as an orchard. Upon arrival, the house resembles a classical form within an idealized landscape.
The villa is a house of rooms, primarily experienced through movement from room to room. Recalling the ‘raumplan’ of Adolf Loos, the section is manipulated to create rooms of different scales and proportions, suitable for their respective functions. The larger public rooms are held between the act of dwelling and the desire to roam. Their proportions and symmetries describe the sense of stillness found in classical archetypes, simultaneously overlaid by the geometries and perspectives of movement; with extended enfilade sequences and oblique views to spaces beyond.
The spaces of these rooms also move from interior to exterior. Large, vertically proportioned windows look from the ground to the sky and out to the landscape horizon. In the principal living spaces on the ground floor one is allowed to step through these windows onto sunlit terraces. From the North facing entrance façade a gallery extends into the garden, taking advantage of orientation to capture diffused light. Interior and exterior merge through the lower ground pool room and entertainment room. These extend outwards, through open-able metal screens, into intimate courtyards. At the top of the building two ‘room-like’ terraces are defined by perimeters of perforated brick. In the garden, a final room is created through a simple canopy above a brick floor, within a clearing in the trees.
The villa contains within itself, a microcosm of the larger site. As hinted at externally by shifts in geometry and arrangements of windows, the villa might be read as an ensemble of ‘houses’ which merge and overlap: a family house; a more formal house, which can accommodate guests and social functions; a little house for the staff, with its own front door and private exterior space. Finally a house for art, where a series of potential display spaces, each with different qualities, exist beyond the formal gallery space. These spaces have the potential to form part of an extended public route, from the exterior, through the house. Thus the villa becomes a house for an art collector or a gallerist.
A generous staircase, with wide, shallow treads is situated at the heart of the plan. It both differentiates and connects these overlapping ‘houses’, forming a communicative space of its own. Each landing of the stair becomes, in effect a small room in itself. These extend to each edge of the building as the stair climbs: to see a view; to cross-ventilate the interior, through glazed doors placed behind the perforated brick walls at the end of two of the landings; to catch different qualities of light during the course of the day.
The space of the staircase extends from the spine of service accommodation which differentiates the spaces at the lower ground. Stretching through the house it forms a dramatic space, which retains a quality of exterior through the simple painted brickwork of its walls and the white terrazzo of floors and stair treads.
The rooms, which lead from this connective staircase space, become progressively more richly lined depending upon their importance and formality. Their position in the section is defined through the material quality of their ceilings. The spaces within the ground have ceilings defined by slender ribs of concrete. On the ground floor, the tall living spaces have ceilings of in situ bronze formwork with delicate bronze down stands, whilst the lower spaces have a grain of flush bronze channels set into a polished concrete soffit. On the top floors the concrete soffits become continuous, subtly folded surfaces, reflecting the falls of the roof.
The bronze detailing of the interior responds to the character of the exterior. The villa is concerned with proximity. Its form and the scales at which it is registered, shift in relation to distance. From afar, it is understood as a simple, compact, brick volume, seen in the round. Closer to, the building is understood as a number of more intricate layers. The hierarchy of each ‘face’ of the villa is subtly adjusted in response to place and programme, whilst collectively, the façades establish a continuity of character. This continuity extends to the roof, also of brick, which is understood as a fifth elevation in relation to taller, neighbouring houses.
Density is both expressed and denied in the tectonic of the façade. At its base, the brickwork of the construction expresses the mass of the material and the thickness of the wall. Above a change in brick bond and a corresponding step in section, suggest a lightening of load whilst revealing the brick face as a skin, supporting only itself. In places this transforms into a delicate fretwork of open joints describing a fabric like patterning of light and shadow, through which a viewer might catch a glimpse of what lies beyond.
The denial of the wall as the element that supports the building is made emphatic through the introduction of a further layer of refinement, in the form of a delicate bronze frame. This subdivides the surface of the wall into a series of panels. The frame is patently not load bearing, in fact it is the visible component of a system that ties the exterior wall to the concrete frame of the internal leaf. At the base of the façade, the frame sits just proud of the surface. As the wall steps back above, the frame becomes more expressed; a series of fin like verticals which crown the building.
The bricks are hand made and thus joints are loose, accommodating tolerances in their making. This counterpoints the precision of the frame in which they are held. The frame however also adjusts to circumstance. The upper element establishes a rigorous grid of panels, which expand by one brick per bay to accommodate a slight geometrical shift in part of the plan. Below the rhythm of verticals is looser, responding to variations in window arrangements and the scale of interior rooms. Horizontal elements correspond to lintels at the heads of windows.
The relationship of brick, frame and window establish an ambiguous tectonic character for the exterior of the building. The frame undertakes the real task of tying the façade and forming lintels. Simultaneously though, it suggests a visual approximation, becoming representative both of the actual structural concrete frame and the arrangement of the interior volumes.
This sense of ambiguity is literally stretched where components of the frame extend to become the faces of extruded, secondary volumes. These in turn fold to define perforated, openable screens. Filling large openings, which frame the sunken courtyards, these deny the weight of the wall above.
Each face is, at once, figurative and abstract, decorous and purposeful. Masks, offering only partial resemblances, they collectively echo the proportions and rhythms of tradition whilst simultaneously registering the abstractions of modernity. They retain memories of the devices of classical order, alongside the didactic qualities of traditional framed buildings and Twentieth Century industrial facades.
Through the critical re-interpretation of culturally embedded forms, constructions and spatial configurations, the villa generates associative qualities that place it physically, socially and historically. Through these, it establishes a restrained and refined aesthetic, which might inform the development of a new city.