Travel June 2009

Beijing’s Almost-Perfect Hotel

The Opposite House is an idealistic island in a country that rarely worries about details

Getting things done fast is easy in China. Getting things done well can be hard. At this stage in China’s development, just about everything is poised for rapid, large-scale action. You need a new freeway, seaport, or office complex? Come back in a month and it will be nearly done. The speed with which Chinese factories can switch from one product to another has been crucial to the country’s manufacturing rise.

Most of the time, I admire the rough-and-ready Chinese determination to make things happen and worry about the details later on. But admiration requires constant allowances for efforts that are almost right. Just in time for the Olympics, Beijing opened a shiny new express rail line out to the shiny new airport. It’s a great way to avoid congested freeways—except that the designers didn’t bother to include escalators or lifts at the main downtown station for passengers with bags. One evening my wife and I had dinner in a newly opened “international” hotel in Urumqi. Just as a sommelier proudly poured local Xinjiang wine for us to sample, a cleaning attendant started running a mop under the table and moistly over our shoes. No one had gotten around to scheduling the dining and the floor-mopping for separate times.

And thus I am touched and fascinated by the islands of perfectionism in modern China, by efforts to achieve something truly first-rate. I have seen them in factories, in art studios, in university research labs—and most recently in the Sanlitun district of Beijing, from the designers and managers of the new Opposite House hotel.

The hotel’s name, based on a Chinese term for the guesthouse in an auspicious spot on the far side of a family courtyard, is the least unusual thing about it. With rooms at list prices of $700 and up, Opposite House comes in at the very top end of a Beijing hotel market that has been glutted with new capacity just as international business travel has fallen off. I saw no guests in the lobby or public areas during my latest visit on a weekday afternoon. The bar and two restaurants on a lower floor are usually packed, and I’m glad: I find myself pulling for the hotel’s survival as a work of creativity and art.

Swire Properties of Hong Kong last year opened yet another of China’s big-city luxury retail malls, called the Village at Sanlitun. The original developers planned to include yet another large business hotel in the complex, but when Swire took over, it decided instead to give the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma more or less free rein to conceive a boutique, 99-bed hotel. (Opposite House is the first of a series of planned boutique hotels in Asia for the new Swire Hotels group.) “There are three or four main hotel designers in the world, and you can go into any five-star hotel and say, ‘Oh, he did this one, and he did that one,’” Anthony Ross, from Melbourne, the general manager of the Opposite House, told me. “Kengo Kuma had never designed a hotel before. Most of our staff has never worked in hotels before.” Alex Chen, the assistant sales director, who is from Atlanta, said: “There is literally a book on how to design hotels, which we threw away.”

One of Kuma’s conceits was that the hotel should feel like an “urban forest.” On the outside, this means a greenish-glass wall structure that to me has an unpleasant ’70s-retro look. But on the inside it means stunning public and private spaces. The public space is a six-floor-high atrium that occupies the center of the building, with a gigantic metal-fabric drapery, which I thought of as a loosely reefed sail. There is no check-in desk, nor any bellmen or other obvious members of staff. “If you come in carrying bags, someone will spot you and come to greet you,” Chen said. From there the staff members—young Chinese recruited for affable personalities rather than experience—help guests register using tablet computers. The atrium doubles as a display area for contemporary Chinese art. Two floors down are the gym and a large, stainless-steel swimming pool.

The private spaces, the rooms, look like what an architect would dream of if freed from practical constraints. They are in two color ranges only: the white/ivory of walls, linens, pillows; and the natural wood hues of the oak floors and the recycled pine (from old structures in southern China) that lines the corridors. In the bathroom, there are square wooden sinks and a huge, deep, rectangular wooden soaking tub. Many of the rooms overlook a rare sylvan area of Beijing, the Sanlitun diplomatic compound, which, with its low-rise buildings and high-rise trees, gives the impression of a mini Central Park. The rooms are called “studios,” not rooms, “so guests will feel creative,” Ross said. “We want them to feel at home.” If only home were this nice.

Niceness is a constant struggle. As we walked through the hotel, I noticed reflecting pools that were being drained to correct leaks and decorations that didn’t yet quite fit. These are the challenges of life in China. I admire the attempt to attempt to maintain the first-rate.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his site is jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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