We talk to Dong Gong, founder of Beijing-based Vector Architects, on the rebirth of a discoloured sugar mill that outlived its original purpose and was turned into a luxury resort.
It was three years ago when I first visited Yangshuo that I fell in love at first sight with this ethereal compound, tucked away deep in the karst Yangshuo terrains.
Once a sugar mill, built in the 1960s, Alila Yangshuo – a portfolio member of Alila Hotels and Resorts – is now a luxury resort that celebrates the building’s rich history in all its forms.
Serene and secluded, the retreat is marked by astounding Brutalist beauty with elegant simplicity, where traces of its glorious past as a working sugar mill are everywhere to be seen – from the original bricks, the sugar press that is kept intact at the bar to the sugar cane loading dock that now sets a dramatic stage for a swimming pool perched on the cliff off the winding Li River.
I remember lounging by the pool in the dark, watching smoke curls as if the mystical mountains were moving; I remember walking through a sunken path that cuts through a large pond, with the placid waters reflecting the looming mountains above and calming forces below; and I remember venturing into a vault-esque space through a spiral staircase that turned out to be a spa centre.
It is a true work of art charged with healing energy, and leading you on an enlightening journey of both body and soul. Dong – the creative force behind Alila Yangshuo – provides more insights into reinventing the decades-old site.
What is your definition of a good architecture project?
Good architecture should be able to solve real problems and to confront its geographical and environmental boundaries, while retaining intangible qualities that reflect the beauty, vibe, energies and even the emotions that are given off by a space.
Alila Yangshuo is a blend of old and new. How do you retain the charm of an old sugar factory in a modern setting?
The organisation of space and building materials are the soul of the Alila Yangshuo project. The entire restoration is built upon on the idea of the sugar mill being the protagonist for the hotel. We keep the mill at the heart of the site. The hotel’s main building is flanked by the new builds – the guest rooms and villas – on opposite sides just like the spreading of wings.
They all revolve around a large reflective pond, which sets the tone for the design language of the hotel. All the new builds are kept lower from the sugar mill to lend it an enhanced sense of austerity, like a mid-century church, that proudly overlooks the entire site.
On the material front, we insisted on using contemporary materials and construction methods. Instead of simply copying the old materiality and texture, we used hollow concrete blocks made by wood-formed cast-in-place concrete to create a transparent visual effect without disturbing the existing order of the building. We hope the new is progressively evolved and conveys a sophisticated consistency with the old.
You believe the manipulation of natural lighting in architectural projects profoundly impacts not only interior spaces, but also our body and soul. How does this theory apply to the Alila Yangshuo project?
When surrounded by the hollow concrete blocks, you get the sense of an enveloping atmosphere, like vapour. Concrete is high-density attached with a heavy industrial touch. But we harnessed the hollow concrete blocks to soften the natural light that seeps through the voids on the wall to convey a sense of lightness, just like a translucent frosted glass. This is an interesting topic in architecture – the interplay of light and heavy. It adds more depth and texture to a space.
What’s trending in Chinese architecture, and what’s the future of it?
Let’s leave this question for future critics. Architects today should focus on solving real problems, and let critics in 10 to 20 years concern themselves about the architectural trends that defined this era.
Of course, we architects have to be aware of what’s going on around us and have a basic understanding of the past and what may come next. But one shouldn’t obsess over it, nor be concerned about it if your work represents the future. The present is what counts. When you take the present seriously, it connects you to the past and propels you into the future.