• Elevated view from northwest
  • Rotated views of the Upper House
  • View of typical garden in Lower House, with pool and lightwells
  • Section showing cave-like interior volumes, main stair
  • View from main road
  • Cutaway view showing relationship of Upper House and Lower House

Ordos

The Ordos project is now familiar to many architecture fans as a daring, and perhaps quixotic, plan to build 100 villas by emerging architects in a desert in Inner Mongolia. The notion was hatched by Ai WeiWei and Herzog & de Meuron (who selected the roster of firms to participate). And like many of contemporary China’s most far-fetched schemes, it is currently being marched toward completion with the utmost seriousness.

Our design for Ordos 100 began with an anxiety—one concerning the size of the house. The given program for each villa was very large, totaling 1,000 square meters. This is endemic to the world of contemporary architecture, where building programs have been expanding in size and complexity. We continue to make use of the old typological words (“house,” “school,” “museum,” etcetera), while the objects to which these refer are dilating, evolving in both form and use. What we were calling a “villa” in Ordos is in fact something more like a small boutique hotel, mixed with a private entertainment facility.

There were several potential problems associated with this. One was the mismatch between the size of the program on the one hand, and the area of the plots on the other. While the houses were enormous, the plots were actually quite small. We were concerned about the rise of a Singaporean condition, with large houses placed very close together. It was expected that each team would maximize the allowable footprint, resulting in a rather unhappy form of urbanism. This would only be exacerbated by the fact that each of the 100 architects were taking the opportunity to create their masterpiece—every house in Ordos is a statement; many are also first houses by young designers. This was potentially a very bad situation.

Another concern involved the mismatch of the program and the potential inhabitant. We imagined our clients: an affluent Chinese family with one child and ten thousand square feet. To offset the absurdity of this, we proposed a clear division of program between those rooms used on a daily basis, and the remainder that were intended only for occasional entertainment and sociality.

Our solution to this problem was actually quite simple, although it created unexpected results. Instead of designing a single elephantine house, we chose to divide the program into two elements, which would then be designed in an interesting relationship with one another. We preferred to see two economical houses, albeit in a strange juxtaposition, rather than something bloated and empty.

The first or “lower” house is expressed as a carpet of rooms and open-air courtyards, made of brick and concrete and set below the ground to a level of 3.5 meters. The small courts contain micro-landscapes, and allow each of the rooms to peer out without overlooking one another, maintaining their privacy. The lower house is set within a sort of excavation, a rim of earth that appears to have been cleared—the effect is something like an archaeological site, where ancient walls are discovered beneath the soil.

By contrast, the “upper” house is intended to project a more iconic image: a gable-roofed, stand-alone home. It was our hope, given our placement of much program into the lower carpet, that the upper house could be made strangely compact, a counter-point to the large and somewhat grandiose designs of surrounding sites. We wanted to achieve the magician’s trick of making the program disappear; to the person on the street, it would appear as if our villa had managed to squeeze a large program into a small space.

The upper villa also has been manipulated to look solid and mute, almost stereotomic. We wanted it to appear as if it were carved out of a single piece of rock, or cast in a single lift of concrete. To accomplish this, we have attempted to remove much of the detail associated with conventional construction, removing roof overhangs and flashings. A single “cut” appears to chop the roof, making the pitch asymmetrical.

In addition to a more rational division of program, this strategy presented some very real environmental advantages. After all, the villas are being built in a desert, with a bi-polar climate: excoriating summers and long, cold winters. Placing the carpet-housing below ground allowed us to pack rooms into the earth, to conserve thermal mass and minimize temperature fluctuation during the course of the day. This is an ancient strategy used in harsh climates, as the soil creates a “thermal mass” that dampens wild swings in temperature. The relatively small size of the upper house—the bulk of the program has been placed below—allows it to be heated and cooled as a controlled zone, independent of the less-utilized rooms.

We decided to stack these two villas in a very casual manner. The upper overhangs two courtyards of the lower, creating the impression that it could easily have been shifted in one or the other direction. The instinct behind this decision was practical, but also a little mischievous: we realized that we could have a lot of fun with the relationship of two very different, stacked houses—especially as this is clearly a perverse situation in which to place them. We decided to maximize their contrasting qualities. One would, in effect, form the landscape upon which the other sits. One is ground, the other figure. One is abstract, neutral, and modern in a 1950s manner (such as the Case Study Houses, or early Paul Rudolph); the other is a “tweaked”” version of a familiar form. “