A previous client messaged me about a housing project that he had come across on the internet called the Ordos 100. A project with ambitious aims that had failed to get built – and no one seemed to know what had become of it. Not knowing anything about the project, I set about finding out what happened to Ordos 100 – albeit from behind my desk.
What is Ordos 100?
Ordos 100 was an ambitious project to build 100 villas designed by 100 architects. Each villa would be a 1000 square meter in size within a master plan designed by Ai Weiwei. Herzog and de Meuron and Ai Weiwei curated the project, and Jiang Yuan Water Engineering Ltd. was the client/funder/developer.
The villas would be part of a new city centre in Ordos located in Inner Mongolia, North of China. I should mention here that Ordos has gone through some name changes which are beyond the scope of this post, but this article here explains more for those interested in the saga of the names.
Similarly to how other new cities in China have been developed, the idea was that Ordos would be built for a community that did not yet exist, and therefore predicting what would be required.
The project got off the ground in 2008 when the invited architects from 27 countries met in Ordos. At the time, Ai Weiwei described the project as a large movement about communicating –
“It’s not one person designing 1000sqm villa. You are part of this large movement. This movement is about communicating. Exchange ideas, knowledge and many experiences are much stronger”.
Filming of the meet suggested that there were very few concerns about the pitfalls that could arise from architects looking inwards and talking to themselves only. And of course, layered on top of this was the limited knowledge that the architects had of the local context and culture.
Amongst those invited included some whose work I admire like Sou Foujimoto, Alejandro Aravena, Atelier Bow Wow and UK based DRDH Architects.
What were the challenges for the architects?
The vast desert scape with no built environment to respond to was mentioned by many to be one of their main challenges. Further to this was the lack of any design principles that could be adopted by the architects to bring the 100 villas together cohesively. Many feared that the city, if ever constructed, would metaphorically be a ‘zoo’ of incredibly large houses with not much commonality, each vying for attention.
Although, some architects rather sensibly proposed the idea of using colour or materials to unify the villas, this approach was not taken up. This is baffling because at at the very least, it would have been in keeping with the spirit of Ai Weiwei’s assertion of a “movement about communication” and “not one person designing a 1000sqm villa”. Genuine collaboration might have emerged out of the discussion of how the villas would relate to one another contextually.
Another unusual aspect to the project was that the architects had no clear idea of who will be inhabiting these villas. Whilst this is no different to how multi occupancy housing developments are generally designed – the architect’s client is the developer and the person who will eventually live in a standardised flat/house buys once built with no involvement during the design process – a 1000sqm villa with a design that is one-off suggests bespoke high-end design where one would expect that the needs of the people that will eventually live in it will be designed into the architecture.
Architects designing around their own needs by imagining themselves as the final occupants or inventing characters with little knowledge about the local culture would ultimately lean towards the type of architecture that is image driven and from elsewhere, where it is the occupant that has to adapt to what has been built instead of the other way round.
So what happened to Ordos 100?
After the early design stages were completed resulting in drawings and models, the intention was that the designs would then be technically developed by local firms. And this is where the project appears to have come to a halt with none of the villas ever been built. Scouring the internet for what happened to Ordos 100 brings up photos of models and the names of various architects linked to the doomed project. But none explain what happened better like this documentary. Although it does not provide the answer to why the villas were never built, it gives an insight into the early stages and the clues for why the project would never be realised.
Beyond Ordos 100, the city of Ordos remains largely uninhabited as new built developments mutate into urban decay.
What can be learned from the project?
Ordos 100 was obviously an overly ambitious project without any clarity of who needed it. A conceptual project that failed to place the needs of people at its centre and a development approach that has subsequently left Ordos empty of inhabitants. The project highlights the importance of identifying the need for a development before providing. It also highlights the need for us construction professionals to look beyond ourselves and towards communities that will be living in the places that we build. The idea of 100 architects from across the world looking inwards for design cues in a country where few had any experience of, conjures up an architecture of nowhere and for no one in particular. What happened to Ordos 100 was perhaps inevitable, a project filled with many indulgences that post 2008, maybe no longer seemed appropriate.
What are your thoughts on this ambitions project and lessons that can be learned? Do you have some insight into what happened to Ordos 100 beyond my ‘behind the desk’ research? Or if like my previous client, you would like to see a residential related topic covered on this blog, I would be delighted to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.