On the banks of Yangcheng Lake, near the 1,500-year-old Chongyuan Temple in Suzhou, China, is the health-and-wellness retreat and resort Sangha by Octave. Declared the world’s fastest-growing city, currently at 5 million people, Suzhou is also a UNESCO World Heritage site long renowned as the Venice of the East for its abundant bridges, gardens, and pagodas dotting the Yangtze River delta, about an hour’s drive inland from Shanghai.
Beginning in 2007 through the National Code of Urban Planning, the government began to establish a more harmonious urban-rural relationship by restructuring land use, reforming property rights and promoting ecological restoration of the polluted environment, aimed to physically and socially improve the rural environment in the Yangtze Delta Area, one of the most developed regions in China.
The industrialization that has occurred since the 19th century led to the political 1960s movement ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’ which marked a dynamic shifting of the Chinese population in both urban and rural areas. As farmers were considered to be one of the fundamental classes of the newly founded nation, urban youth were sent to rural areas or poor villages in order to learn from the farmers there.
In the 1980s this began to reverse due to market-based urbanization when citizens flowed back from rural areas to their hometowns and rural residents immigrated for jobs to cities. More than half of China’s population of 1.39 billion people now live in cities, up from 20% at the start of China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s. As a result, cities have suffered from rapid population growth and worsened environmental conditions.
Now, with fewer and more expensive plots available for new development in the cities, real estate developers have started gradually transforming their capital and various resources from the crowded overbuilt cities to rural areas. Numerous changes to the rural environment, ranging from tourism facilities to green life recreation have resulted.
Consequently, a newly designed countryside is beginning to reflect the demands and tastes of citizens who want increased food safety, improvement in the air quality and water pollution that are threatening cities. A slow lifestyle has also become more attractive to urban citizens who are greatly interested in traditional life experiences away from their intense work in the cities.
Sangha by Octave, a wellness center for the body and mind is part of this shift away from the bustling cities. The resort component comprises programed concerts, lectures, movies and wedding receptions in a chapel-like pavilion where wedding ceremonies are held. Studios offer instruction in visual arts, ceramics, and music with a food hall, complete with stations dedicated to individual cooking methods use food from the community vegetable garden. A lap pool, a ribbon of water that follows the U-shape of a cove allows relaxing views of Yangcheng Lake, which is a protected habitat for the popular delicacy Shanghai hairy crab.
Sangha was built in cooperation with the Chinese government who are increasingly recognizing social versus economic value. The ‘land fingers’ sticking into the water are a result from a previous failed development which would never have been allowed today. ‘Starting over’ and removing them would be more ecologically damaging; leaving the fingers in the water was a cleaner and obviously more affordable solution. This allowed construction with minimal impact and also increased the development’s relationship with the lake.
The challenge for our team was to soften the development’s intrusion into Yangcheng Lake with lake edge strategies of riprap stones and native waterside vegetation to help avoid erosion and fuse the line between water and land. Various edge conditions helped create design opportunities in certain areas; for example organic stone edges at the clubhouse complements the sensual smooth white curves of the pool. At the pool deck in specific areas near the lake’s edge, water flows through permeable walls naturally from small cleansing biotopes filled from channeled rain gardens.
The leftover hardcore, brick, stone, tiles, etc. from the previous development are recycled in various ways and used as much as possible. The community vegetable garden, paving texture in specific areas and parts of the riprap edge are constructed using these recycled materials. Round river-washed stones instead of quarried stone are used for walls as a measure to minimize destructive destruction quarries create with the land.
Planting to soften the development’s visual impact on Yangcheng Lake was carefully designed to create a native natural environment found on the lake’s edge, but also used to create important viewing corridors into the lake from the development and as just importantly screen parts of the development from the lake with contextual landscaping of local vegetation.
Grounded in craft, texture and detail using local materials and following local traditions, Sangha at Yangcheng Lake has become a mental refuge for citizens from bustling cities.
Client: Suzhou IMC Property Development Co., Ltd
Architect: TsAO and Mcknown; Atelier FCJZ; Neri&Hu Design and Research Office
Project location: 199 Yang Cheng Ring Road, Suzhou Industrial Park, Jiangsu Province, China
Design year: 2011~2014
Year Built: 2017