The landscape of Yangshuo near Guilin in China’s Guanxi Province is out of a traditional Chinese ink painting—undulating limestone karsts, arching bamboo, and flowing rivers, and Dong Gong makes the most of this scenery. Located on the picturesque banks of the Li River, Alila Yangshuo
is a restored 20th
century sugar mill with architecture by Dong Gong, Founding Partner of Vector Architects and interiors by Ju Bin, Founder and CEO of Horizontal Space Design.
“I believe that an architect should be in awe of what is called ‘Tian’ in Chinese or ‘nature’ in Western culture. This means that when you are on site, you see with your heart and invoke the energy of the site environs to define the form and meaning for your architecture,” says Dong Gong. “Alila Yangshuo, as in many of our recent projects, is located in a natural site so I have the opportunity to think of how the environment can impact and influence the architecture and its function.”
The restaurants, library, spa, and the 177 rooms, suites, and villas occupy a number of heritage buildings among the vaulted mountains. Dong Gong’s design takes inspiration from the karsts’ caves and tunnels, with winding passageways and bamboo art installations reminiscent of traditional scaffolding. Red volcanic rock was discovered during excavations for the resort’s subterranean spa. The stone was ground and mixed into the terrazzo floors and wall scree—giving a vivid red tone.
The exteriors of the buildings were formed from 60,000 handmade hollow local limestone bricks. “It is a building made of concrete but visually it possesses a quality of lattice work with light and air,” says Dong Gong. The hollow block brickwork of the resort was drawn from the sugar blocks that were produced in the 1920’s and features subtle lighting from within the walls.
Ju Bin revamped the mill’s pressing room into an industrial bar. The designer kept the 50-year-old concrete mount intact below a transparent floor. “In defining the Chinese aesthetic concept of ‘beauty is in the old and the turbid’, the design team feels that the buildings must contain elements of the original sugar mill. ‘Beauty in the turbid’ means that the space must contain a touch of rusticity and must not be too refined,” states interior designer Ju Bin.
The history of the sugar mill, originally established in in the early 1920’s by a Mr Liu, is told in a series of 200 paintings commission by Alila and displayed throughout the resort. They tell of the founder’s dream to create a utopian factory amid natural beauty and the transformation into a weapons factory during the Chinese civil war. The 1960s refining room now forms the Sugarhouse Restaurant and an art gallery while the hotel’s lobby is the sugar mill’s former power plant.