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Long-Awaited Complex in Nanjing Prepares for Its Debut

Date: 2012-12-27

After years of delays, the China International Practical Exhibition of Architecture (CIPEA) is mostly built, according to its owner. The ambitious complex is located in Laoshan National Forest Park, across the Yangtze River from downtown Nanjing. It was conceived in 2003 by Lu Jun, president of Sifang Cultural Group, to showcase projects by 24 architects—11 from China and 13 from abroad. The buildings include 20 unique houses as well as an art museum by Steven Holl, a conference center by Arata Isozaki, a recreation center by Ettore Sottsass, and a hotel by Liu Jiakun. Lu says he is currently in discussion with Rem Koolhaas about OMA adding another building to CIPEA.

While most upscale residential communities in China are neoclassical in design, CIPEA is decidedly contemporary. Under Lu's direction, Liu and Isozaki invited like-minded designers to build on the site. Hiring foreign architects was important to Lu. "We want to bring an international spirit to our site," he says. Some Chinese netizens have criticized foreign firms for using China as a playground for architectural experimentation. "If CCTV and the Olympic stadium are playgrounds, we want to become a playground as well," says Lu. An avid collector of contemporary art, he wants CIPEA to be a center for art as well as architecture. Lu has enticed Zhu Tong, the director of the Nanjing 4Cube Museum of Contemporary Art, to move that institution into the Sifang museum designed by Holl, which stands at the entrance to the complex. Lu says, "The whole site is a museum, and the rest of the buildings will also display art." Even the houses are essentially museums, meant to be visited but not inhabited.

CIPEA is the first phase of a larger development by Sifang, reports W. Paul Rosenau, president of EKISTICS, a Vancouver-based architecture and planning firm that developed the master plan. "The second phase is a more private development," he says, "where Lu can make money to try to pay for the first one." Large-scale construction has begun on a site adjacent to CIPEA that was designated for Phase Two. Sifang Cultural Group would not confirm the nature of this construction.

CIPEA got off to a rough start nine years ago, according to Rosenau, when Lu had to change plans after another party acquired the proposed site. What Lu first thought would be a two- or three-year project is now approaching its 10th year. Three of the public buildings—the museum, conference center, and hotel—appear ready to open, while the recreation center is just a shell. The houses are in various stages of completion. As of a site visit in early September, those by Wang Shu, David Adjaye, Ai Weiwei, and six others are finished. Some, like the one by Sean Godsell, are partially built, while others, like that by Hrvoje Njiric, have not broken ground. Designs by SANAA and Yung Ho Chang exist as overgrown foundations.

The client and the architects list a variety of reasons for CIPEA's delays, including intermittent communication, designs not meeting local housing codes, foreign firms working with local design institutes for the first time, problems with payments, and requests for nonstandard materials and details. Lu's initial cost estimate for the project was 200 million RMB ($32 million), and he expects the final cost to be 1 billion RMB ($160 million). Despite these problems, and the current state of construction, Lu claims that most of the buildings at CIPEA will be completed by the end of this year and that the entire CIPEA project, complete with its art installations, will be ready to open to the public in two and a half years.

Has CIPEA succeeded in its goal of introducing foreign architects to China? Practices like Holl's have thrived since this, his first commission in China. Holl says, "I build more in China than anywhere else in the world." Godsell says he was flattered to be invited to participate in CIPEA, but his experience there has dissuaded him from pursuing future work in China. "It's hard enough to do great building in my own backyard," he says.

And what of CIPEA's effect on architecture in China? "It had a massive impact on the field," says Liu. But he acknowledges that the delay in CIPEA's realization has made it "a bit forgotten," and that its true impact will emerge only after its completion. "These projects are proposals from years ago, which may not represent the current state of architects' thinking," he says. "But they are crucial to each architect in his or her career." Holl has a similar assessment. "The potential for quality and experimentation in new architecture is given a boost by this type of project," he says.