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An American architect in Suszhou / Chinese irony

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China ironies / In the midst of frenzied copying of Western architecture,

an American builds a home with traditional design




The entry to the living room of Bay Area architect Arrol Gellner's home in Suzhou, China, features a classic "moon gate" leading to a generous living area. The moon-gate motif is repeated in a mirrored inset in the opposite wall, giving the illusion of rooms beyond.


China's building boom has revealed a curious cultural disconnect. Amid a resurgence of national pride, Chinese leaders have chosen foreign architects for signature projects such as the Beijing Olympics venues and Shanghai's Jinmao Tower; it is equally visible in the infatuation of young Chinese designers with Western trends.


Is a subtle form of design imperialism being revealed in this obsession with Western architects and forms? For important commissions, the Western cutting edge is clearly held in much higher esteem than locally inspired alternatives. Echoing this semiofficial dogma, mainland designers are reveling in the freedom to explore every niche of design history, it seems, except their own.


In the 2003 glossy overview of current design, "China Modern" (Periplus Editions; 207 pages; $40), one Western architect gushes, "China is a virgin territory to be discovered. There is a lack of preconcepts or aesthetic rules and the freedom to assimilate all kinds of influences."


Notably lacking from that architect's own concrete villa near the Great Wall is any Chinese influence whatsoever; the hulking box could just as easily be located in Tokyo, New York or Berlin.


Equally striking in the book is the sterile internationalism of designs by homegrown and other Asian architects; the minimalist home by Gao Bo, for instance, owes more to Philip Johnson's Glass House and a Bauhaus Modernism than anything remotely Asian, while Japanese architect Kenjo Kuma's one feeble nod to the location of his similarly rote glass-walled villa was the use of bamboo -- given the material's ubiquity, hardly a striking deployment of Asian aesthetics.





In the rare instances in which authorities have ventured to save some of China's own architectural heritage, the work has typically been spearheaded by foreigners. Shanghai's seminal commercial reuse project, Xintiandi, for instance, was designed by Boston architects Wood + Zapata and the San Francisco office of U.S. powerhouse Skidmore, Owens & Merrill. Inspired by the success of Xintiandi, other municipalities and developers are following in its reuse/restoration footsteps, but such careful attention to China's heritage is still the exception.


This irony is also reflected in individual efforts; of the nine projects listed in the "Echoes of the Past" reuse/restoration section of "China Modern, " every one belongs to foreigners.


While many of the featured designs claim Chinese influence or materials, the claim largely rings false; the only visible Chinese elements are accents, such as an antique trunk or wood screen, or kitschy knickknacks such as a ceramic "Mao girl" statuette. If this fluff counts as influence, then innumerable London, New York or SoMa lofts are equally Chinese-inspired, and China as a place is rendered meaningless.


Or does the "design imperialism" reside in expectations that China should value its own traditions at least as much as Western fashions? Many Westerners and Chinese who have returned to live there are using Chinese design ideas in their homes. Are they interlopers, or are they the ones who will someday be respected for providing locally nourished alternatives to fundamentally senseless imported fads?


Architect's home in Suzhou


In this maelstrom of competing influences, it is refreshing to find a design that draws deeply upon traditional Chinese motifs and aesthetics without being held prisoner by them. Emeryville architect and writer Arrol Gellner, who has written the "Architext" column for The Chronicle since 1993, first visited China in 1994, and now makes his home there for three months of each year.


"When I first came to China, I was amazed to see that the Chinese had pretty much turned their backs on their own architectural history," said Gellner. "They thought that being modern meant they had to copy the West. Even now, much of the architecture owes more to Las Vegas than to anything Asian. So when it came time to build our house in Suzhou, I wanted it to be modern, but not at the expense of ignoring China's own brilliant traditions. If I'm living in China, I want to know it."


Like condominiums throughout China, Gellner's new flat in Suzhou (about an hour west of Shanghai) was purchased as an empty concrete shell with electrical and plumbing stub-outs. Devoting themselves to its completion for the past three summers, Gellner and his wife, Aidong, supervised the demolition and rebuilding of partitions, followed by the installation of flooring, cabinetry and interior woodwork. The results reflect a conscious effort to synthesize Chinese design precepts and motifs with a present-day aesthetic of clean lines and rich detailing.


This thoughtfulness begins with the locally crafted wooden entry door, which is stained in a traditional dark tint; the brass lock is similarly local in origin and design. The visitor enters a vestibule where the flat's central themes are immediately visible in the traditional Chinese cabinet and the classic "moon gate" entry into the living room.


"It made sense to me to use traditional materials rather than a lot of slicked-up Western finishes," Gellner explained. "The Chinese can do incredible things with stone, brick, lime plaster, wood and bamboo, so there was really no need to go further than that."


The flooring of locally fired dark gray clay tiles unifies the entire first floor, leading the visitor into a generous living area, where the moon gate forms that are inset in opposing walls create a dramatic effect. Mirrors set into each circular inset offer the illusion of rooms beyond, and play off one another in an almost Escher-like duel of reflection and surprise.


Gellner's innovative attention to lighting is apparent in the gently curving lines of bamboo matting suspended from the ceiling. The matting, which brings texture, shape and natural-materials warmth to the white concrete ceilings, cleverly conceals air conditioning units and provides an inspired backdrop for spot lighting.


Local inspiration


A niche beside the entry moon gate offers both a locally crafted stone bench for taking off or putting on one's shoes (removing shoes upon entering is essential in any Asian home) and an intricate, traditionally designed wood screen over the window. The bench is set not on the clay tile flooring but in a bed of smooth river pebbles that meanders in a narrow stream along the walls to the moon gate insets; there, the rock rivulet turns into the mirror and adds to the illusion that another space is beckoning beyond.


An unparalleled collection of exquisite gardens and canals has long made Suzhou one of the must-see sights in China. The gardens' pebble walkways and varied waterworks are clearly the inspiration for both Gellner's pebble borders and the delightful fountain that occupies the transitional area between the staircase to the upper levels and the living room.


A raised bench of clay tiles matching the floor forms the fountain; water trickling from a bamboo spout into a stone urn spills over into a shallow pool, adding peaceful sound and a focal point. The smooth river-rock border also surrounds the fountain base, joining it thematically with the entry and living room walls.


This vantage point offers access to a modern kitchen with cabinetry stained the same rich red-brown as the entry door, and a similarly finished wood stairway with a baluster highlighted by square "Chinese Vernacular" celadon-glazed inserts; a wall niche at the first landing provides a worthy setting for an artful vase or flower arrangement.


The second level contains an office and a bedroom-bath suite; a third loft level was finished as a guest suite. Necessities such as laundry and storage are tucked into the second level.


Surprises await the visitor at nearly every turn; a round "window" in the wall of the upper stairwell offers a clerestory view into Aidong's office, and a second trickling fountain is tucked into the small balcony that opens off of the guest suite.


"A lot of the little details were inspired by Suzhou's ancient residences, which are really more garden than structure," said Gellner. "There's an incredible lightness to those designs, a reverence for nature, and so much care put into the arrangement of spaces. Some of the houses are very small, but the way they're divided and the way the views are screened or framed makes them seem to go on in every direction. I wanted that sense of mystery, of spaces beyond, in this house -- but especially that ancient sense of lightness, which is totally lacking in modern Chinese architecture."


Gellner's attention to detail and devotion to local craft is displayed in the frosted bamboo-motif pattern sandblasted into each of the apartment's glass doors, and in his selection of traditional hardware for each of the closet doors. Warm wood paneling and lacquered screens cover the walls of Gellner's office; a vintage divan and a desk salvaged from a local newspaper office provide the furnishings.


Staying true hard to do


In one of the many ironies the couple encountered in trying to stay true to Chinese traditions and designs, they were unable to find any older Chinese furniture in stores serving local residents, most of whom want modern, trendy furniture. Unable to find such pieces locally, the couple ended up shopping at an antiques store patronized by other foreign residents.


In a final irony, Gellner was counseled not to feature his Suzhou home on his Chinese-language Web site, as potential Chinese clientele would be much more interested in his California-style suburban home designs than in the tradition-inspired detailing of his flat.


"Some of my Chinese visitors seem startled that a Western architect would actually value traditional Chinese design concepts to modern Western ones," said Gellner. "But if I'd just dragged a lot of Western architectural baggage with me, I might as well have stayed in California."


If there is anything predictable about fashion, it is its fleeting nature. But we can also predict that timeless designs, drawn from a culture's vernacular architecture and history, will hold their value and integrity whether the designer is native or foreign.


Charles Smith is a Berkeley writer with more than 25 years of experience in building and remodeling. E-mail him at home@sfchronicle.com.


/link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?...HOGNKAL3HR1.DTL

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