Guilin is a city in southwest China that boasts an otherworldly landscape; dramatic limestone karst hills, fragrant osmanthus trees, and the glassy Li River make this a popular tourist destination. Now a new guest house in Guilin takes the idea of otherworldliness even further. Known as The Other Place, this optical illusion-laden hotel was founded by Yi Feifei, a Harvard graduate whose position as Founder & CEO of Nianhua (Beijing) Cultural and Creative Development has led her to initiate many cultural and creative projects.
Feifei enlisted the skills of fellow Harvard grad Shi Zhou, an architect who practices in the United States, Hong Kong, and China, and who founded Studio 10. An oasis for wandering souls and creative spirits was born.
We recently spoke with both Feifei and Zhou on the design concept behind this now-iconic destination.
We understand that the existing guest houses underwent a massive renovation project that culminated in their current state. How would you describe the pre-existing structures, and what challenges or opportunities did they present in the transformation?
Yi Feifei: The three-floor building was a concrete, unfinished space before the renovation. The challenges and opportunities go hand-in-hand in the sense that on the one hand, the space — originally planned for non-hospitality use — was an unusual height on the third floor, which would be very unconventional for guest rooms. But on the other hand, it provided the freedom for the designers to construct an awe-provoking spatial experience for future guests.
The design is very much influenced by the artist M.C. Escher and his optically-disorienting lithographs. Why the nod to this particular individual and his work?
Shi Zhou: We have always been fascinated by M.C. Escher’s works since architectural school. His designs are absolutely inspiring for architects.
After visiting the site for the first time, it felt like a chapel. We knew we had the opportunity to do something special spatially. Some obscure thoughts started to emerge while we were in that space. Then we tested the idea after coming back from the trip. The client was quite open-minded and immediately liked the idea of the Escher-inspired design after the first design presentation, and was very supportive of the idea throughout the process.
How did Studio 10 become part of the project?
Yi Feifei: [I] had been friends with Shi Zhou, the founder and head of Studio 10, before the project. When [I] first started to conceptualize this project to be a collaboration of individual creativity and to explore the heterogeneity of the conventionally oversimplified “otherness”, [I] thought of Shi, who had just left KPF to start her own design studio. [I] immediately invited her to participate in this unconventional creative project.
What were the challenges of communicating such an unusual concept to contractors? Was the entire team on board with the vision, or did it mystify individuals along the way?
Yi Feifei: The project team was on board with the vision from the very beginning, but as we had expected, it took a lot of efforts to communicate such an unusual concept to the local contractor/construction team. As the creative design concept had never been seen in the local region (not only Pingle County, but also Guangxi Province), the project team carried out countless conversations and discussion meetings to bridge the gap between the designer’s bold creativity and the contractor’s understanding of what can be done and what should be done.
Each room is uniquely designed based on an abstract concept: Light, Maze, Peace, Innocence, etc. How were these themes chosen?
Yi Feifei: On the contrary, the design came before an abstract concept. Each designer was given the autonomy to decide on the theme and ambience of each space. As the design for each guest room [was] almost finalized, the project team thought it would be good to summarize each guest room design into a one-word concept to give the guests a hint on what to expect for the experience of the room. The project team put a lot of thought into finding the suitable words, both in Chinese and English, for each of the rooms.
Which of these unique rooms has proven to be the most popular with visitors?
Yi Feifei: Dream and Maze.
What is something that guests may be surprised to learn about your hotel?
Yi Feifei: Think of these ten guest rooms as a box of chocolates — full of surprises. The idea is for the guests to meet the soul behind the space when they step into each guest room; therefore, we also asked the creative individuals to handpick one or two books for each of the rooms they designed to better facilitate the “conversation” with the guests who choose the rooms.
We have a host-in-residence program, inviting talents in different fields from China and abroad to stay at the hotel for a few weeks, create art, and communicate with the guests. We’ve had a filmmaker, painter, architect, and sculptor take part in the program. Their presence and works add to the creative vibes of the hotel, and our guests have had such interesting and mind-opening conversations with these hosts-in-residence.
The common areas are full of treasures for the guests to experience, such as the rooftop on the third floor; [it’s] the perfect spot to watch the stars and the galaxy while enjoying some wine from the CHI area on the first floor. Some of our guests have spotted shooting stars while hanging out there.
We have a resident kitten named Ali (translated from the Chinese name 阿漓, named after the serene Li River where the hotel is located). He’s probably the cutest cat in the world (as commented by some of our guests), winning the hearts of all human beings he has encountered, regardless of gender and age.
Guilin is a city known for its dramatic, hilly landscape. What local influence can be found in the design — any specific materials or details?
Yi Feifei: The integration of the local natural environment with the design was essential. Many local materials and techniques were actively implemented in both the common spaces and the guest rooms, such as the bamboo floating ceilings in the Gallery and CHI space and the pendant lights utilizing bamboo-woven baskets in both the Light and Shadow rooms. The impression of Guilin’s Li River can also be found in the Ripple room, where the wire-meshed fish and boat vividly re-imagine the underwater world during fishing seasons.
Your ten guest rooms were designed by five different creatives. How did this small team work together to ensure that, while each room is unique, there would also be a common design identity throughout?
Yi Feifei: While we had five creatives participating in the design, the project team held the master of the design and the overall planning and installation of the project. We had a member on the project team responsible for communicating with the creative individuals and making sure of the standards and practicalities of the design while giving them the creative freedom to the largest extent. The shared design identity is to be connected with the local environment and culture, while staying true to the creatives themselves. The space of the guest rooms to them [was as] canvas to painters and pages to writers. They [were] encouraged to represent what they imagined to be the other possibilities of life in the creative design of the guest rooms.
Why the name “The Other Place?” What does that concept mean, exactly, and how is it represented in the accommodations?
Yi Feifei: The Other Place translates from the project‘s Chinese name 別居, embodying our ideal of creating a space that enables our guests to discover the varying possibilities of life. For the modern city dwellers, “life is always somewhere else” outside of the repetitive daily routines. We hope to remind our guests that life entails more than being stuck in rush hour and the stress from the workplace. The Other Place is a getaway destination where you can put yourself in a new and exciting scene to experience more. At The Other Place, we encourage our guests to read an interesting book or watch a beautiful film, play with our resident kitten, join the residence artists for some creative art classes, take a walk in the wilderness, or try the unique local delicacies. That’s why we designed our common area on floor one into nine functional areas, [like] Meeting Point, Create, Gallery, Scene, Tea-Time, Samadhi, Books, and CHI. This concept also explains the idea of inviting a group of creative individuals to design each of the guest rooms under a different theme in order to bring the guests into a different world of surprises when they open each door.
Photos via The Other Place.