In 2002, a project featuring the work of 12 prominent Asian architects won a special architecture award at the Venice Biennale. This is the familiar story of Commune by the Great Wall, a series of boutique retreats located far from the clamor of downtown Beijing. Now managed by SOHO China, the collection has grown to include 40 villas – many of them replicas of the original houses.
I first heard of Commune by the Great Wall when I moved to Beijing four years ago, but I didn’t have a chance to visit until this August. Over the past few years, the boutique hotel has turned its attention to families with the construction of a kids’ club in 2007. When we arrived at the Courtyard, the Commune’s central clubhouse, there were many Chinese families milling about despite the light rain outside.
The first stop on our tour was the Kids’ Club, a white building spanning two floors and attached to a tiered outdoor swimming pool (open only during the summer). The clean, airy club has a child-sized kitchen used for the cooking classes, complete with tiny aprons and chef’s hats. Down a corridor is the Poplar Kids’ Republic Library and Bookstore, opened in partnership with the Beijing-based children’s bookstore of the same name. The library has several reading nooks, books in English and Chinese, and regularly hosts story time.
The stairs leading up to the second floor opened onto a large recreation room with a closed, padded play area for babies, a dress-up corner with national costumes (including a flouncy “Russian” dress, American cowboy outfit, and a diminutive Scottish kilt), and separate TV rooms. Everything, from the furniture to the bathrooms, was child-sized. Activities include stargazing, soccer, gardening, hiking, arts and crafts, and movie watching. Child care is also available.
We then visited four of the original 12 houses: the Cantilever House by Antonio Ochoa, the Bamboo Wall House by Kengo Kuma, the Shared House by Kanika R’kul, and the Furniture House by Shigeru Ban.
My favorite was the Cantilever House (known as the “Red House” in Chinese), in which a wooden walkway winds around an inner courtyard, over a grassy slope to a rooftop terrace with sweeping 360° views of the mountains. In front of us, we could see Chen Hsueh-Yi’s Airport House nestled in the green hills; behind us, the Great Wall snaked over the mountain only a ten-minute hike away.
Commune by the Great Wall has a number of other services, including two restaurants and a bar at its central clubhouse, a spa with massages and new detox programs, and an adult-sized swimming pool with a cafe. Activities include romantic getaways, hiking on the Great Wall, yoga, cycling, and more. The staff can arrange for a van to pick you up and drop you off between various points.
However, the spa and restaurants were definitely on the pricey side.
Staying in the original houses isn’t cheap; a night in one room will set you back around RMB 2,500. That’s why many visitors opt to stay in one of the replica villas.
If you want privacy, we recommend getting together several families to reserve a house together; otherwise, there’s the chance that you’ll be sharing the space with strangers. Request a house with the number “2” after its name (e.g. Bamboo Wall House #2); these are closer to the Kids’ Club. During the summer, ask for a house near the adult-sized swimming pool if you have older kids. Peace and quiet are easier achieved if you book during the week, when you’ll feel like you have the entire Commune to yourself.
With October being the best time of the year in Beijing, now is the ideal time to enjoy the changing landscape at the Commune. But hurry – the hotel’s regular season ends at the end of November and won’t restart until March.
Photos: Courtesy of Commune by the Great Wall