China's designer revolution is based on thoughts of mortgages, not Mao

The new urban rich are cashing in on the economic boom by spending their money on exclusive homes and furniture, reports Jasper Becker
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The Independent Online

China's new class of Communist rich are letting their imaginations go as they throw out the antimacassars and the padded armchairs and hire trendy designers for their million-pound mansions.

China's new class of Communist rich are letting their imaginations go as they throw out the antimacassars and the padded armchairs and hire trendy designers for their million-pound mansions.

With banks ready to offer 80 per cent low-interest credit, the rich are abandoning their proletarian apartments in communal blocks for residential developments with names such as Palm Springs, Fifth Avenue, Aristocrat Towers, Chateau Regency or Merlin Champagne.

China's record 9 per cent growth is being powered by a housing boom caused by many of the 200 million urban Chinese taking out mortgages.

The recent National People's Congress meeting formally adopted laws protecting private property rights, while the gap between rich and poor grows ever larger.

The top developments feature walled compounds with 24-hour guards and offer double garages, luxurious club houses, golf courses, swimming pools and tennis courts, and tiny rooms for the live-in servants.

"Architects here are drunk with freedom - this is the time for experimentation," said Daniel Nazdin, an American architect who designs everything from office blocks to luxury housing estates. "A project I would have six months to do in the States, I have three weeks to do here," he said, "but it is very exciting. You never know what will happen next."

The opening of an Ikea shop in the capital six years ago attracted vast crowds, and the company still ranks as one of the biggest influences on popular taste. Anything foreign still has top cachet but a few are trying to reach out for a new, eclectic Chinese style.

Adam Robarts, a British architect who has taught and worked in Beijing since 1993, said: "All of a sudden everyone is talking about art and design."

Antonio Ochao-Piccardo, the chief architect of a high-rise development by a company called Soho China, said: "People are coming in off the streets to buy apartments in the Jianwai Soho complex and just offering us suitcases full of cash. It's crazy."

His building is all avant-garde minimalist with floor to ceiling glass walls. The average flat costs £164,000. The complex, with its narrow, winding lanes and grass-lined walkways, is modelled on Beijing's old hutongs, or courtyards, but defies the city's traditional north-south axis of house orientation by positioning all buildings 30 degrees eastwards and making them flooded with light.

The residential area is complemented by hundreds of small, street-level shops, similar to another big hit in Shanghai, the Xintiandi development, which has attracted the city's trendiest restaurants and boutiques.

Soho China's most daring architectural project is a collection of holiday homes, all individually designed by 12 leading Asian architects and located near the Great Wall.

It is a curious mélange of ultra-modern and individualist Zen-style design called the Commune, where the staff wear Maoist-style uniforms with badges that evoke the fervour of the Cultural Revolution.

China's new rich are asked to put down a minimum of £275,000 on weekend homes such as Ochao-Piccardo's eye-catching Cantilever House, which hangs over the valley. Inside are spacious, light-filled interiors, and on the roof is a garden, jacuzzi and barbeque. The developer Zhang Xin, who studied economics at Cambridge, won the Silver Lion special prize at the 2002 Venice Architecture Biennale for her role as a "patron of architecture".

In central Beijing, some designers are going for a style which is not just post-Mao but post-industrial, where a knowing irony almost comes as a side order. Lin Tianfang's Pink Loft, for instance, is a Thai restaurant in a remnant of Mao's industrialised Beijing. "It used to be one of those secret military research plants, something to do with electronics," she said. "The whole area around here was a sort of Silicon Valley."

Now the chains, girders, glass floors and concrete walls have been painted pink. The old, heavy, dark hardwood furniture of the Manchu period is set off by embroidered pink silk cushions and a profusion of fresh orchids.

Lin's first restaurant, the Loft, was also created in a discarded part of China's military-industrial complex. She started it with her brother and elder sister in 1999 as a place to hold art exhibits, performances and electronic music festivals.

The food is European, the furniture is Chinese, and the art is charmingly Warholian - on one wall dozens of television screens show footage of a model Cultural Revolution-era opera.

Others are going for an ornate retro style harping back to China's past. Handel Lee, an American lawyer who owns the Courtyard Restaurant, has done that with his own home. He rebuilt a courtyard house that once belonged to a nephew of Wei Gongxian, a notorious Ming dynasty eunuch who in the 16th century became the highest power in the land.

A descendant of the original Manchu troops who conquered Beijing in the 17th century, Mr Lee redesigned the house to exploit the feel of the history.

Outside the city he has built himself several weekend retreats in a startling Modernist style. "It is amazing what you can do here now - things you could never get away with abroad," Mr Lee said.

His restaurant combines avant-garde painting exhibits in a house once owned by the doctor of General Yuan Shikai, the man who set himself up as emperor after the overthrow of the Manchus in 1911. "The modern art scene just keeps getting bigger," Mr Lee said.

According to Rebecca Xsu, the owner of the Cottage, an interior design shop, the latest trend in Beijing is a desire to get back to nature and one's roots. "There are too many concrete blocks around, too much steel and concrete, so people are looking for an escape. In the past they all lived very close to nature and the earth - look at our hutongs. Courtyards were packed with dirt and open to the sky. Designers want to reflect that."

Soho China's biggest project is an attempt to fuse all these trends into a giant commercial real-estate venture. The British architect Zaha Hadid is designing Soho City, a residential and office complex the size of a small town next to the Beijing Logistics Centre in the city's south-eastern suburbs.