Designing A Million Square Feet


By Marissa Maier

A partnership between a Bridgehampton architectural firm, a Chinese developer with a western aesthetic, a Feng Shui master, and the Chinese Communist government might seem odd. For Stelle Architects, however, it’s business as usual. The designers at the firm are accustomed to tackling diverse projects for both local and international clients, like the Sag Harbor Emporium Hardware Store and a therapy center in Zurich.

Their current project — a one million square-foot residential complex in the Chinese city of Tonglu, which is still in the planning stages — is no exception. The site is one of the largest projects the firm has undertaken, but it still bears a modern aesthetic and sustainable building concept — two hallmarks of any Stelle Architect designed space.

The firm was first approached about the project a year ago by a Chinese family who owns several hotels in China. One member of the family had previously hired Stelle Architect Luca Campaiola in 2000 to design a renovation of her private home in Hong Kong. Over the summer, the three main architects on the project, Campaiola, Fred Stelle, a North Haven resident and the firm’s founder, and Michael Lomont, traveled to China. They spent a week in Shanghai researching Chinese architecture and a week in Tonglu looking at the site.

The site, named Legend Park, consists of five apartment towers and 20 town houses. Legend Park features an underground parking complex, a pond and reflecting pool. The design also includes many elements of green architecture such as geothermal heating, solar paneling, and roof gardens.

For the Stelle team, the project presented a few design challenges. To meet the cultural needs of their clientele, the architects created more rooms in each unit because more people tend to share apartments in China than in the US. The architects also designed the kitchen to be in a closed off area, a marked difference from the open quality of western kitchens.

“The kitchen is the center of the western lifestyle. [Here] the kitchen is an open space. In China it is just a part of a service,” said Campaiola.

A Feng Shui master also worked with the architects on the project, a normal practice in China, to guarantee the designs followed the principles of the practice. After reviewing preliminary blueprints, says Stelle, the master would return them with a picture of a crab in the center. The image of the crab denotes life, wealth, and protection against negative energy. According to Campaiola, in Feng Shui the element of water brings the crab to life. Water is an important aspect of the project, since Tonglu sits at the confluence of two rivers. Prompted by the Feng Shui master, the architects added a water element that runs the length of the site.

“We made the water the centerpiece of the site because it is the source of all life,” said Campaiola.

After the Feng Shui master’s approval of the designs, the developers had an informal meeting with the local Communist party. In China there are no zoning and architectural review boards. Instead, when members of the local Communist party sign off on a project, it is fully approved for construction.

“[The party] has been very receptive to what we proposed,” said Stelle. “They understand the foundation of good design.”

Stelle believes in recent years China has become fertile ground for modern design from the West. As China saw unprecedented economic growth in the past decade, the country reflected this change in its buildings.

“All the new buildings are simple and clean. They are just bulldozing the old buildings,” said Stelle who believes the Chinese are using modern design as a way to move forward.

Stelle has specialized in modern and green design since he first arrived to the East End in 1984.

“[When I first came out here] there wasn’t a lot of interest in modern architecture. The path to [building] more traditional houses was going on but I found that dishonest and uninteresting … you can’t build new things to look like old ones. You can tell they are new,” said Stelle.

In addition to Legend Park, Stelle’s firm is also working on the interiors and landscape design for a Legend Hotel in Tonglu, which is slated for a soft opening in summer 2010. Despite the current economic woes affecting countries around the world, Stelle says the developers want to have Legend Park completed by next year. Stelle and his fellow architects will be returning to China next month.