Off the Great Wall

A most unusual hotel—part luxurious retreat, part architectural showcase—has opened outside Beijing. High style has finally come to modern China.

Only a few minutes' drive past the rows of tourist buses at Badaling, however, a road leads in a different direction—to a quieter, more elegant place that lies behind a gate guarded by a man dressed in black and wearing a red star. You are welcome to do a double take: The man's appearance recalls the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. If he is a Maoist, however, he is a Maoist by way of Armani. His uniform reflects the stylish new ideology taking root in China, akin to the jokey postmodern irony found throughout the capitalist West. The boutique hotel he is guarding, Commune by the Great Wall, hardly a workers' paradise, represents one of the first efforts made by moneyed Chinese to leave kitsch behind and bring high style to China.

Originally conceived as a showcase for Asian architecture, Commune is unlike any other hotel in China—actually, unlike any other hotel in the world. It is eccentric and offers something more than the usual plush of expensive, multi-starred retreats. Instead, guests can rent what one architect calls "an advanced contemporary architectural experience." Commune has a handsomely designed clubhouse, but it's the prospect of spending time in one of the 12 individual houses that attracts wealthy adventurers. Typically, individuals or a group of acquaintances will rent an entire house (each one is staffed with its own butler, who wears a uniform adorned with a red star) designed by a famous architect. Instead of spending the evening at karaoke—the enduring passion of at least half the businessmen in Asia—guests can sit with friends amid the edgy architecture of the late 20th and early 21st century, drinking a martini as the sun sets over the Great Wall.

Commune is the pet project of Zhang Xin, the wife and business partner of Pan Shiyi, one of China's major real estate developers. Acquaintances always describe the couple in the same terms. Xin, 38, is the polished woman of the world (she went to Cambridge and was an analyst at Goldman Sachs). Shiyi, 40, is the rough entrepreneur who emerged from the people. No doubt there is some truth to this duchess-and-peasant portrayal, but there is also some symbolic show biz going on: To Chinese observers, their marriage represents the union of Chinese and Western values.

At Commune, Xin initially intended to build a grouping of private houses designed by influential Asian architects, which she would then sell to individual buyers. However, when the collection won an architecture award at the 2002 Venice Biennale, Commune became a symbol of China's cultural aspirations, and Xin and her husband decided to showcase the project internationally. "Our grand vision," she explains, "was to build a contemporary architectural museum for private houses in a valley—next to the Great Wall—that will influence a whole new generation of architects, developers, and consumers in China."

Xin's main adviser around Commune is Antonio Ochoa, one of the 12 architects who designed houses for Commune. Born in Venezuela, Ochoa has lived in China for many years (his father was a South American Maoist). Xin tells him that he has "a Latin flavor" and "understands about life." In other words, Ochoa represents the pleasure principle at Commune. He will order a couple of excellent bottles of wine at lunch—not just at dinner—and he is always thinking of ways to smooth out any rough edges at the hotel. The pleasure principle, given the horrors of Chinese history and the puritanical fervor of communism, does not come naturally to most contemporary Chinese. But that does not mean that they don't believe in it. And some Westerners, while enjoying the boomtown flavor of Beijing, also long for the subtler elements of style and pleasure. That's what Commune hopes to provide.

"In Beijing," says Ochoa, "there's nothing to do on the weekends. Where do you go to enjoy or relax? There are almost no country houses yet in the Beijing area. A handful only—it's just beginning." Commune lies in a valley surrounded by the hills over which the Great Wall twists and turns. The land is arid, but those who are longing to hear a bird's chirp after the din and pollution of Beijing will find some contemplative quiet. They will also find, if Ochoa has his way, a magical restaurant. Commune has recently hired several top regional chefs, including one to provide Cantonese dishes, another one for Sichuan specialities, and a third to offer the best Peking Duck in the Beijing area. In keeping with the pastiche of modern China, there will be an invitation to mix and match different styles of cooking. The idea is that perhaps something extraordinary will one day emerge from this culinary give-and-take.

The clubhouse mirrors, in a postmodern way, the Great Wall. A structure of wood, Corten steel, stone, and concrete designed by the South Korean Seung H-Sang, it will rust into a color that reflects the landscape; the Great Wall can be seen from various vantage points. The architect has cleverly arranged the clubhouse's public and private spaces, with a large public dining area and six eccentrically designed private dining rooms that are perfect for the sort of private groups and parties that Commune hopes to regularly host. Each has its own courtyard and theme. One, for example, has walls of straw, to evoke autumn and the harvest. (Not far away, in a Cognac-and-cigar room, the walls are made of peacock feathers.) Not surprisingly, the clubhouse has a huge indoor swimming pool, with transparent doors that open onto a vista of the Great Wall.

The most popular dwelling in Commune—by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma—is Bamboo Wall House. It's a place of blissful tranquillity, enlivened by bamboo accents. With simple, spare geometric lines, its construction materials are at the same time rough and refined. At the heart of the house is a pool containing a floating bamboo island, surrounded by bamboo walls, where you can kneel and sip tea while admiring the landscape. Many visitors actually dream of living in Kuma's house. The young woman taking me around—a shy employee who spoke no English—grew momentarily chatty because she wanted me to know that this was her favorite. Works of architecture often have a kind of sound—some are jangling, some harmonious, and some melodic. Bamboo Wall House has the sound of silence.

Most of the others are examples of what can be best described as architectural statements. Interesting to visit for a weekend, but you wouldn't necessarily want to live there. For example, Suitcase House—by Hong Kong architect Gary Chang—is a charming conceit that you can "empty" or "fill" with rooms and furniture by lowering or raising its floors. Furniture House, by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is designed around the furniture rather than the other way around. The chairs appear very important, as if they were actually sculpture, which makes you feel rather special when you sit down. Cantilever House, designed by Ochoa, opens onto the landscape in a way that's rare in traditional Chinese architecture, which defensively closes off the world behind walls. The house, playing with the interaction of interior and exterior spaces, emphasizes views of the Great Wall and includes a vast porch on which one can sit in a hot tub or enjoy a barbecue.

"In the West you're used to seeing serious contemporary architecture," says Ochoa, "but for the Chinese this is the moon. It is the first time they have the experience of going into a contemporary space. When they visit, they touch everything." Westerners will not experience the same wonder, of course, although actually staying in such places will still be a very unusual experience for even the most jaded world traveler. It interested me that, as an ensemble, the houses in Commune had little in common beside postmodern razzle-dazzle. The Chinese do not appear intent, at the moment anyway, upon developing their own distinctive or national style. Instead, they are drawn to the work of architects throughout Asia and the world. In Commune, China itself, traditionally very inward looking, seems to look outward, beyond the great walls of its past. Still, it's a revealing irony that Commune by the Great Wall is, itself, built behind a gate.

Like China, Commune is very much a work in process. No one knows whether it will succeed as a hotel. Its main weaknesses stem from larger problems within China. For example, the detail work is mediocre; after decades of communist rule, a reservoir of skilled craftsmen and artisans just isn't there. Doors don't always close smoothly. Edges aren't sharp. Paint can be slapdash. The gardens look tatty. Commune also doesn't offer the family-oriented amusements found in expensive resorts in the West. Activities like horseback riding or hiking remain foreign in China. Commune has so far succeeded mainly as a place for corporate retreats and parties, selling style to people who sell style. In particular, vendors of high-end luxury goods (insanely popular in China) love Commune. Porsche had a party there. So did Jennifer Lopez. And Hennessy Cognac recently celebrated its 200th anniversary with a party at the hotel.

One detail Commune gets comically right suggests it will successfully negotiate what "stylish" means to our time. The clubhouse bathrooms play with gender stereotypes—the men's is pink, the women's dark, English, and gentlemanly. You could almost be in New York.


A Weekend in the Country

In this new era of open exchange (the tourist and financial varieties, at least), it's relatively easy to travel to and from China. The perfect time to visit Commune by the Great Wall is summer or fall, since Beijing can be icy in winter and quite dusty in spring.

LOGISTICS The best way to get to Commune is to hire a car and driver in Beijing. The hotel provides its own limousine service, at $60 to $145 per day. If you do not want to stay overnight, spend part of the day at Badaling looking at the Great Wall and then stop at Commune for lunch or dinner and a browse around the grounds.

WHICH HOUSE IS RIGHT FOR YOU? If you are looking for a couple of days of peace and quiet, rent Bamboo Wall House, which removes visitors from modern China and drops them into a serene, Zen-like space. If you prefer a wild and crazy postmodern experience, try Suitcase House or Furniture House. Cantilever House, which opens prettily onto the landscape, will appeal to those desiring a view of the Great Wall. The club's swimming pool is dazzling, but don't expect—at this point, anyway—the spa services and other amenities typical of country resorts in Europe and America. Rates, $888-$1,288 per night. At the Great Wall Shuiguan exit, Badaling Expressway, Beijing; 86-10-8118-1888; www.commune.com.cn.