On the banks of Yangcheng Lake, near the 1,500-year-old Chongyuan Temple in Suzhou, China, is the health-and-wellness retreat and residential community Sangha by Octave, a masterpiece of master-planning by Interior Design Hall of Fame members Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown. “It’s the first time we’ve been involved in everything, from the programming down to the cabinet pulls,” Tsao says. That’s because the property was not only designed by Tsao & McKown Architects in Brooklyn, New York, but also developed by Octave, the socially responsible Shanghai real-estate company owned by his brother, Frederick Chavalit Tsao. They derived the name Sangha from the Sanskrit word for community.
Influences on the Sangha by Octave concept range from Taoism and Confucianism to the mid-century American utopian ideals of treading lightly on the earth while attempting to heal the body, mind, and soul. During the project’s eight-year journey, Tsao and McKown—partners in life as well as business—conducted research by visiting such consciousness-raising destinations as the Esalen Institute in California, the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Canyon Ranch in Massachusetts and Arizona, and the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, also in Massachusetts. These places sprang up as the U.S. middle class exploded after World War II, making them especially relevant references in China, now experiencing a comparable economic dynamic.
Declared the world’s fastest-growing city, currently at 5 million people, Suzhou is also a UNESCO World Heritage site—long renowned as the Venice of the East for its abundant bridges, gardens, and pagodas dotting the Yangtze River delta, about an hour’s drive inland from Shanghai. First on Suzhou’s short list of contemporary architectural must-sees, the Suzhou Museum by Pei Partnership Architects opened in 2006. Like that project, Sangha was built in cooperation with the Chinese government. “If they don’t approve of what you’re doing, they won’t let you do it,” Tsao says. “But they’re increasingly recognizing social versus economic value.”
Tsao & McKown designed specific buildings at Sangha, of course. Tsao also selected a dream team of architects and designers to contribute to the 1 million-square-foot complex: Interior Design Hall of Fame members Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, FCJZ Co., Baker Design Group, Eland Architects, Gensler, and Margaret Sullivan Studio. Pentagram contributed graphics. What McKown calls “contextual landscaping” of local vegetation is the work of Design Land Collaborative.
“Part of Sangha is for the body, and part is for the mind,” Tsao says. The residential component comprises 109 houses, plus four apartment buildings with a total of 87 units. Concerts, lectures, movies, and wedding receptions for residents and visitors take place in a dedicated events center that stands next to a chapel-like pavilion where a wedding ceremony, for example, would occur. Tsao refers to that building, one of Neri and Hu’s contributions, as the “jewel in the crown.” (It already won an Interior Design Best of Year Award.)
Then there’s the Wellness Center. At its East West Integrated Medical Clinic, services from blood tests to colonics are available. “Anything short of MRIs,” Tsao says. The levels above house the At One Wellness hotel and a spa.
One of two hotels at Sangha, At One Wellness has 69 standard rooms, three garden suites, and three of what Tsao calls “honeymoon suites.” Windows along each guest corridor are a unique color, both for way-finding and to interact with different orientations to the sun. The spa boasts not only a main swimming pool but also one specifically for children, along with traditional Japanese-style communal baths. In addition to a skylit hammam, a therapeutic salt room is the latest craze for curing breathing and skin problems. A dome room, floored in gray felt, is dedicated to meditation. “The spa isn’t sybaritic, but it’s also not about disease. It’s about wellness maintenance,” Tsao explains.
Sangha’s educational hub consists of the Fellow Traveler hotel, the Life Learning Center for adults, and the Early Childhood Learning Center. The 46-room hotel is modeled after graduate housing you might find at a North American business school—with blocks of eight bedrooms sharing a study lounge to make it easy for groups of students, along with their instructor, to occupy their own block for an educational retreat. Subterranean, meanwhile, are the Life Learning Center’s auditorium, lecture hall, classrooms, and four “dialogue” rooms. Here, you might engage in sessions of the Hakomi Method—a form of psychotherapy developed in the 1970’s that combines Western psychology and Eastern philosophy—or workshops involving family therapy, life coaching, and facial-expression recognition.
Back aboveground, studios offer instruction in visual art, ceramics, and music. And let’s not forget the 27,000-square-foot food hall, complete with stations dedicated to individual cooking methods, a bakery, and a café. Visitors arriving for a class or a meal might park their cars in a garage that would ordinarily be a “nothing space,” Tsao says, if it weren’t for a kinetic light installation with a disco vibe. Fresh air can be had in the community vegetable garden and alongside the unusual lap pool, a ribbon of water that follows the U shape of a cove. You can’t swim in the lake—a protected habitat for the Shanghai hairy crab, with its claws that resemble spiky mittens. But you can stroll through the sunken, stepped “town square.” Tsao also likens it to a college campus quad.
Finally, there’s the gallery. Its debut exhibition featured photographs of the contractors who made Sangha possible: concrete mixers, pavers, bricklayers, and electricians. All were invited to the opening reception, which quickly turned into a party for them. That’s highly unusual in a country where they’re unaccustomed to being celebrated for their work. “We would have nothing without them,” Tsao says. “They’re taught that they’re nobodies, but they’re somebodies.”
Project Team: Brian Cabaniss; Yunyuan Deng; Jonathan Hoover; Mike Hsieh; Paul Lee; Jodel Narcisse; Chandler Oldham; Richard Rhodes; Karin Bostanci; Mike Lee; Ana Goldstein; Joan Bombardó Martí; Ye Liu; Joanna Gulik; Lorraine Glover; Danielle Justino; Andy Hartmann; Joseph Roberts; Van Hsin-Sung Tsao; Ching Tai; Matt Conrad; Edward Oo; William Vincent; Cornelis Brinkman; John Jhee; Tuan Luong: Tsao & McKown Architects. Brandston Partnership: Lighting Consultant. PA Wellness Consultancy: Spa Consultant. IHD: Audiovisual Consultant. Aurecon: MEP. Green Fortune: Plant Wall Contractor.