Zhang made her name with Commune by the Great Wall, a sequence of villas (now a boutique hotel) in a valley next to a section of the Chinese landmark about 70 kilometers north of Beijing. Designed by 12 Asian architects, Zhang was awarded the Individual Patron of Architectural Works prize for the project at the Venice Biennale in 2002.
“Before that, I had been building buildings. But really (the Commune) was really the showcase of my passion for architecture. I first found this valley by the Great Wall. And I thought (that) this is a great place to invite some great architects, who (would) each design something according to their imagination,” she said.
She sent letters to 12 emerging architects from Japan, Thailand, Hong King, Singapore, South Korea and China, some of whom had not been to the country before, telling them: “You can do your own (design) program. I’ll just build.”
One of them, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, suggested using bamboo. “He saw the construction quality wasn’t up to the Japanese standard. So he thought: I must choose a material that does not require (a) precise construction method. So he came with the idea of bamboo. The bamboos are natural, so if they are not straight, it’s not a problem.” Kuma’s Bamboo Wall House has six bedrooms, an overwater tea room and an open-plan kitchen and dining rooms, and is promoted as a place for corporate meetings.
The See and Seen House, meanwhile, was designed by Chinese architect Cui Kai, a steel and glass structure where the host’s bathroom has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mountains, and guests share facilities at the central Commune Club, which has 10 private dining areas and gardens. All have private access to an unreconstructed portion of the Great Wall.
Other early projects include SOHO New Town, a residential and commercial area east of the China World Trade Center in Beijing, and Jianwai SOHO, a complex of 20 high-rise towers, rooftop gardens and four villas, the first phase of which opened in 2003.