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Jim Spear: Built to Last

If you’ve ventured beyond the parking lot at Mutianyu Great Wall, you might have seen them. Distinctive homes with floor-to-ceiling windows that soak in panoramic views of the ancient brick and stone structure on the mountains above. These striking buildings are the work of Jim Spear, a self-trained architect who has built thirty-odd homes in rural villages dotting the Great Wall.

I meet Spear for the first time at East Hotel’s executive lounge. He admires the spare, Asian-inspired interiors (he’s a hotelier himself, having opened the Brickyard in Beigou village), and idly wonders if “peasant” is un-PC. A masterful storyteller, Spear has a number of witty asides that color the ups and downs of his nearly 30 years in China.

Though Spear was never formally trained as an architect, he always had a well-developed sense of design. He sketched floor plans, read books on architecture and honed his aesthetic sense by revamping the crummy dorms and run-down houses of his youth. He was also lucky enough to have had a high school pal who lived in a house designed by the famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s still a hint of awe in his voice as he recalls time spent hanging out in that house as a teen.

It’s little surprise that his Great Wall homes, with their minimalist design and natural elements, reveal influence from the great American master. Yet the core remains rooted in the vernacular of Chinese architecture.

“When I was a kid,” jokes Spear, “I never had so much as an eggroll.” It was through the influence of the proverbial lefty professor “enamored” of the Cultural Revolution—this was, after all, the ‘70s—that he developed an interest in China. But he abandoned his studies and ran off to join the military, and learned Chinese at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

Returning to civilian life, he enrolled at Berkeley, earning a degree in Chinese politics. Spear went on to grad school, but as he was getting ready to start his dissertation, he ran away again. This time to China.

“Sounds like a pattern in my life,” says Spear self-deprecatingly. He arrived in Beijing in January of ‘86. “I just didn’t want to become a professor.” And he did everything but, working jobs in consultancy, trade and even wine. But he wasn’t quite done running away—he had one final place to go.

It was ’96. He and a friend were up at the Great Wall in Mutianyu. “I was tired, and it was a hot summer day,” Spear says. “I sat on a rock, and this peasant tried to sell me a T-shirt. I bought a house instead.”

That’s the short and sweet version. It actually took a lot of persistence from that T-shirt hawker (it was a time before cell phones, adds Spear) and a great deal of patience from his wife (a Beijinger confused about why a villager kept calling the house) to make Spear’s first Great Wall home happen.

He gutted the farmhouse, paring the interior back to reveal its beautiful old bones. “That was where this theme of taking an existing peasant dwelling and revamping it to live comfortably in the 21st century [came from], while paying respect to what came before and retaining as much as is feasible,” he says.

To explore the full possibilities of these village abodes, Spear has to do something rather heretical. Most had no sweeping “Great Wall” views to begin with. Chinese tradition dictates south-facing doors and windows, which, as it turns out, is energy efficient. But to capture views of the winding wall to the north, he had to dispense with tradition.

Windows were bored into the sides to allow for north-facing views. Spear also tore out the dropped ceilings to allow glimpses of the traditional wooden posts and beams, and chipped away at the white plaster walls, uncovering hand-carved stonework.

Spear’s first commission came from friends who had frequented his Mutianyu home—and decided they wanted one of their own. “They paid me to do this,” he says with undisguised wonder. It was a big project for a newbie architect, a seven-bay warehouse that was 500 sq. meters and three stories high. But another commission quickly rolled in before the first even finished, and his portfolio is such that he now has a book out about his rural farmhouses called Great Wall Style.

From the study of his renovated farmhouse, Spear watches the rays of sun light up the Great Wall every morning with an intense golden color that streaks across the craggy mountaintops. The view is the one common thread tying together the numerous houses he’s completed.

“I have a collection of old Great Wall bricks. Not ones I personally went out and stole,” he adds dryly, “but ones I got here and there. A lot of them I dug out of peasant houses. Because what’s the best kind of building material? Free.”

“For generations, we’ve been taking the wall and turning it into other things. I’ve been able to do some very pretty things with used Great Wall bricks. And something that gets used over and over again? To me, that’s inspiring.” It’s also a stirring reminder that these homes, once abandoned and left to crumble into dust, have found new life, and that the millennia-old building techniques used to craft them will be neither lost nor forgotten. 


All images by Robert McLeod, Copyright 2013, Mutianyu Schoolhouse Restaurant (Beijing) Company LTD. Used with permission.

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