‘Our parents did all the hard work. We don’t have to’: China’s seaside haven for the ‘lying flat’ generation

<span>Popular with fashion houses … the seashore chapel in Beidaihe.</span><span>Photograph: VCG/Visual China Group/Getty Images</span>
Popular with fashion houses … the seashore chapel in Beidaihe.Photograph: VCG/Visual China Group/Getty Images

Every summer, since the days of Mao Zedong, the leaders of China’s Communist party have decamped to the coastal resort of Beidaihe to debate the country’s future from the comfort of luxurious seaside villas hidden behind high walls. Four hours’ drive from the distractions of Beijing, it has been a perfect place to escape the capital’s stifling heat, take in the sea air, and conduct secretive conclaves in heavily guarded compounds, in between refreshing dips.

But in recent years, the region has been attracting visitors of a very different kind. On a chilly morning, just a little way south along the coast, the windswept beach is teaming with style-conscious twentysomethings. Crowds of young tourists, wrapped in thick down coats, queue up to take photos in sub-zero temperatures – not next to statues of Mao, but in front of striking works of contemporary architecture.

It became a place of a pilgrimage after these buildings went viral. Architects now feel they have to have a project here

Some pose on the steps of a pitch-roofed white chapel, which stands like a piece of crisply folded origami, raised on slender columns above the sand. Some perch on swings that dangle from a curving frame, or clamber on the roof of an art gallery that emerges from a sand dune. Others queue up for a peek inside a bunker-like library on the beach. Electric buggies glide to and fro, shuttling visitors to these arresting seaside structures from hotels nearby.

Welcome to Aranya, a surreal gated community that has turned this remote stretch of coastline into an unlikely mecca for China’s fashionable gen Z. The area was once home to a failed property development but, over the last few years, it has been transformed into a showcase for China’s top young architects, boasting a menagerie of experimental galleries, cafes and meditative chapels, which attract more than 1.5 million visitors a year – all thanks to the powerful pull of social media.

“They say the internet saved Aranya,” says Qing Feng, professor of architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “It became like a pilgrimage site after these buildings went viral. Architects now feel they have to have a project here to prove their status. Many developers are trying to copy the model. There is nothing like it anywhere in China.”

Aranya first shot to online fame in 2015, when a video of the seashore library clocked over 600m views, giving it “wanghong” (internet celebrity) status overnight. The sight of this jewel-like reading room stranded on a beach, apparently in the middle of nowhere, struck a chord with a generation of burnt-out young urbanites. Named “the loneliest library in the world”, it is a dreamlike place where light filters in through curved openings in the raw concrete walls, while raked wooden seating gives readers a grandstand view of the ocean horizon, framed by glass-block walls. Designed by Beijing-based Vector Architects as a brutalist homage to Le Corbusier, it is a place to escape from the stresses of city life and 24/7 online existence with the primitive novelty of a physical book (unusually for China, phones are banned inside).

“The library became like a spiritual symbol,” says Athena Li, a young architectural designer and social media influencer who has shared visits to Aranya with her million-plus followers. “It caught the imagination of those longing for a slower, more ritualistic way of life – looking for a place to be alone in nature, and find fulfilment in non-materialistic cultural activities, away from the urban hustle and bustle.”

The online mania came as a surprise to the designers. “We had no idea it would be so popular,” says Dong Gong of Vector, who also designed the neighbouring chapel. “But it practically saved the whole development.”

Before Dong arrived, the site had been home to an ailing real estate project, of a kind all too familiar in China’s recent post-boom years. The original plan, partly built, was for a Florida-style community of Spanish revival villas arranged around a golf course. But it began to founder when the Chinese government placed prohibitions on golf, as part of president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown – golf courses having become a favourite place for crooked cadres to broker dodgy deals.

Ma Yin, who had worked for the developer, stepped in to acquire the project in 2013 and set about transforming it into a place where “life can be more beautiful”, as the Aranya slogan puts it. He took the name from the Sanskrit word for wilderness and hired Kenya Hara, the branding brains behind Muji, to come up with a visual identity. Everything is rendered in shades of white and pale grey, from the buildings to the staff uniforms, giving the place a cultish air. “Together, we’ll create new intimate relationships based on culture and values,” intones the Aranya manifesto. “A pursuit of wisdom, self-actualisation, and most of all, love.”

Ma was keen to differentiate the project from other housing developments. He saw a gap in China’s sluggish property market to appeal to the emotional needs of what has become known as the “lying flat” generation – those who are rejecting societal pressures to overwork and overachieve. Aranya would be an antidote to the rat-race and the anonymity of urban life, with a strong emphasis on community and leisure. Residents are encouraged to dine in communal canteens and socialise in organised hobby groups, from dog-walking to flower-arranging, giving it the feeling of a luxury high-security holiday camp – where car number plates are scanned at checkpoints on arrival.

The latest phase, which brings the 220-hectare development to almost 10,000 homes, takes the form of a European-style walkable neighbourhood of mid-rise apartment blocks flanking public squares. There will be a basketball court and a cable-surfing course around a yacht marina, as well as the largest skatepark in Asia. “Aesthetics is the new language,” declares the construction hoarding. “Style has its unique power.”

It has proved more powerful than they could have ever imagined. Properties here sell for four times the local average, marketed to well-heeled Beijingers looking for a weekend home or a retirement place for their parents, which can be easily rented out on Aranya’s dedicated app (butler service optional). Three other Aranya developments are now under way, with sites ranging from the mountains near the Great Wall to a lakeside community near Guangzhou, each dotted with its own contemplative architectural follies and curated lifestyles on tap.

“Our generation cares about beauty and service,” Ma’s young design assistant tells me, as we pass a design boutique curated by Wallpaper magazine. “Our parents did all the hard work to build modern China, but we don’t have the same struggle. We are all looking for spiritual and emotional comfort.”

In the seaside chapel, hushed visitors sit on pews looking out at the ocean through a big picture window, as piped music and scented candle smoke fills the air. There are no Christian symbols in sight: the building’s rooftop cross was recently removed, as overt religious iconography is forbidden in China. But the authorities have been unusually tolerant, given that these buildings were built illegally on the public beach. “The local officials were going to demolish them,” one insider tells me. “But then they realised how beneficial this place is for the area – the tax income from Aranya is now the second highest in the region.”

Crowds descend here for regular ticketed events, ranging from classical concerts to electronic music festivals and sports competitions, while the building commissions continue apace. Wandering the eerily immaculate streets feels like flicking through the pages of a glossy architecture magazine. Projects include a dog-themed hotel by Atelier GOM, an art gallery by Neri&Hu, a theatre by TAO, and a recording studio by Xu Tiantian. Vector recently completed a Chapel of Music, an enigmatic acoustic venue where ethereal sounds are channelled down through the ceiling into a momentous cylindrical listening chamber from a hidden floor above. Audience members recline on a circular concrete bench down below, like some high council of design priests, wallowing in aesthetic-spiritual reverie.

One of the most popular attractions is the Dune art museum, operated by Beijing-based UCCA, an internationally respected contemporary art institution. It is housed in a network of concrete caves. Entering through a sloping tunnel, visitors find themselves in interconnected bubbles where the curving walls are imprinted with marks from the complex wooden formwork, and installations dangle from the ceiling. “It was built by local boat-builders and barrel-makers,” says Li Hu of Open Architecture. “We were going to finish the interior with smooth plaster, but we decided to keep the raw beauty of the handicraft. It shows that it’s not built by robots, or 3D-printed, but done by hand, with joy, by these local people.” In keeping with Aranya’s Ruskinian sensibilities, the hand of the craftsman is ever present.

Li says the area flourished during the pandemic. “It became like a refuge. When other cities were in lockdown, Aranya carried on with cultural events, poetry readings, film festivals. It was like a fairytale paradise.”

Louis Vuitton held a star-studded fashion show here in 2021, followed by Chanel and Marni, while Valentino came the year after – painting the chapel bright pink as the backdrop to its runway. Since then, luxury brands have competed with ever more elaborate beachside launches. Porsche displayed its cars washed up on the sand, message-in-a-bottle style, while LV’s latest show saw models parade between gigantic sand sculptures.

Back in Beidaihe, which remains a patriotic Communist party stronghold to this day, old and new China collide. A gaggle of young Aranya visitors, clutching designer shopping bags, pass a group of elderly women practising coordinated dances to strident nationalist songs on the railway station forecourt. Here, the hoardings are not advertising lifestyle concepts in shades of beige, but exhorting citizens in bright red characters: “Firmly unite with one heart and one mind, to work hard and move forward courageously!”