China is a country known for massive housing blocks and residential environments that, as in many other cultures, rely on traditional architectural styles to attract the newly prosperous, John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects (JFAK) has created something unique: a peaceful, human-scaled neighbourhood of single family detached houses that are completely contemporary in form and materials.
As part of a larger development called Luxe Lakes, the architects and their clients took the calculated risk to reject Western-based traditional architecture in favour of an aesthetic and design solution that would combine China’s longstanding respect for Nature with their own particular embrace of an aspirational future. The end result is a new prototype for middle to upper class single family dwellings in China and beyond.
Working within a constructed landscape in Chengdu’s rapidly growing “suburbs” designed by two Los Angeles-based landscape designers, Fei Huang of Famous Gardens and Pamela Burton, JFAK created something unexpected. “We wanted to offer a new kind of experience,” says John Friedman, “something more organic and based in natural forms, even anthropomorphic at times.” The guiding concept was to create spaces that flow into one another with continuous forms that enclose and engage as well as open up to the outside. “Without trying to mimic the actual environments seen in traditional landscape painting, we aspired to create the same kind of floating, dreamlike quality that is expressed in those paintings,” says Friedman.
The clients hired JFAK based on the firm’s reputation for adventurous and original design. “The clients wanted us to design something not seen before,” says Friedman. “They gave us the freedom to explore – not just for the sake of doing something new, but rather to find a unique model that would resonate with how people might want to live in the new China.”
Each of the villa types is three stories high, with the public living areas located at the middle levels which are accessed from the road. The upper levels are given over to private bedrooms, and the lower levels to additional recreational and communal spaces that open out to the lake or canal. The structural system for all villas is poured-in-place concrete, with various cladding materials that include hard-trowelled plaster, wood, metal, stone, and glass.
In employing this material palette, the architects created organic forms that curve in both plan and section and create a sense of continuous flow and connection. Curved walls and floors reinforce a connection to nature and produce a softening effect. They also create structures with a tube-like “directional transparency” that simultaneously capture the views of the surrounding landscape and provide lateral privacy. The houses are alike enough - in character and materiality - that they create a strong sense of a community, but different enough that the environment is not homogeneous or predictable. Inside of each of them, there is ample natural light through skylights, views to the natural landscape, and also the unexpected, surprising, playful views that one would not necessarily expect, marking each house as special, and designed with care and thoughtfulness. It is these small details, as much as the big moves and overall character of the villas, that make them unique and timeless.
Well before construction was complete, all 43 units sold in one day.