Wednesday, April 30, 2008

architectural boom in mongolia

In Inner Mongolia, Pushing Architecture’s Outer Limits

Published: May 1, 2008

Ordos, China

ON April 12, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, both 36, could have been working in their architecture office in New Haven, worrying about the darkening economic prospects of their profession. Instead, they were in China, presenting a concept for a 10,700-square-foot villa to a client untroubled by thoughts of recession, and being treated like stars. Thanks to a booming economy in this resource-rich desert region of Inner Mongolia, Mr. Meredith said, “we got a little taste of what it’s like to be Zaha Hadid.”

Or maybe one of 100 Zahas. Mr. Meredith and Ms. Sample were part of a large group of mostly up-and-coming design teams from 27 countries that descended on Ordos for five days in April at the behest of a local tycoon. Cai Jiang, who made his money in coal and dairy and has lately turned to real estate, had commissioned 100 firms to design individual houses, each large enough to include amenities like servants’ quarters and indoor pools, as part of a billion-dollar “cultural district” he is building here.

At a time when housing markets across the West are contracting and American architects’ billings are at their lowest point in 12 years, according to the American Institute of Architects, Mr. Cai (pronounced sigh) was offering his guests a rare chance to build big — and paying them, improbably, in wads of cash.

“Basically, Ordos is Texas,” explained Michael S. Tunkey, an American architect based in Shanghai whose firm has designed an opera house that, along with half a dozen museums and a boutique hotel, will anchor Mr. Cai’s new cultural district.

He was referring to the wide open spaces, the frontier attitude and the seemingly endless flow of money (at least in good times) from natural resources. Ordos has rapidly become wealthy, largely because of huge deposits of coal, the primary fuel for China’s economic expansion.

Not long ago, residents of this region 350 miles west of Beijing lived in elaborate tents called yurts. Now, with a population of 1.5 million, many live in homes that would make New Yorkers jealous. According to Bao Chongming, the regional vice-mayor, they have the second highest per-capita income in China (trailing only Shanghai, the country’s financial capital) and an annual economic growth rate of 40 percent.

keep reading, via nytimes

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