The twisted maze of hutongs, or lanes, that once dominated Beijing has shrunk in recent decades. A race to modernize the Chinese capital has meant the romance of living in single-story alleyway communities has been replaced by the practicality of residing in glass-and-steel towers replete with modern luxuries, such as indoor plumbing, which many people find hard to resist.
The concept of siheyuan, which literally translates as quadrangle but in practice is used to describe the traditional courtyard-house structure common to Beijing’s hutongs, was born in China’s Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368). Today, Beijing’s remaining courtyard dwellings tend to be either extensively renovated, to make them comfortable for modern living, or incredibly dilapidated.
The latter was the case for the Qishe courtyard house, a private residence that gets its name (qi means seven and she means house) because not only is its hutong address number seven, but also the original compound comprised a total of seven pitched-roof buildings.
When Beijing-based Archstudio first surveyed the Qishe property, the state of disrepair was daunting. According to founder and principal architect Han Wenqiang, roofs, walls, and windows were either badly damaged or missing altogether, and the three courtyards around which the remaining walls were arranged overflowed with abandoned construction material and unkempt vegetation. “I don’t know the full history of the property,” Han says. “It was probably built as a compound for a single extended family, but over the years it had been converted into a warren of apartments. The courtyards had obviously been unused for some time.”
Archstudio has developed something of a specialty in renovating siheyuans, for both residential and commercial purposes, in Beijing and around the country. Though Han has obvious regard for China’s courtyard traditions, he balks when asked about a passion for “preserving” them, because their nature has always been in a state of flux. “The way siheyuans have been used throughout history has constantly changed,” he says. “Instead of turning them into tourist attractions or museums, I think it’s very important that they continue to be used. Design should be utilized to reactivate the old buildings, to create a more comfortable, convenient, and poetic living environment.”
In fact, Han did a lot to preserve Qishe’s remaining structures. He reckons 90 percent of the original materials found on-site were reused in some way. For example, a broken-down external wall as well as the three courtyards within the compound were rebuilt using the existing bricks. The pitched roofs also make use of the original gray slate tiles, a common feature in Beijing hutongs, but first the rooftops were deconstructed in order to add waterproofing and insulation—a good example of the ways in which Archstudio retains the old without sacrificing modern comforts.
Where the project diverges somewhat from the look of a traditional siheyuan is with the insertion of a continuous glass-walled veranda, a broad corridor that snakes around the courtyards, linking all the buildings while twisting and turning to accommodate several well-established trees. Supported on simple pine columns, the gently curving roof of this light-filled gallery rises in a graceful wave to form an arch over the main entry. Although Han regards this unifying structure as the most important element in his redesign, it was also the one that gave him the biggest headaches on the project, which spanned three years from conception to completion.
The challenge came from Han and his client’s determination to utilize an unfamiliar material—laminated bamboo—not only for doors, window frames, and built-in furniture but also for the veranda ceiling panels. Lightweight but strong, the bamboo looks organic, minimalist, and modern while complementing the older, restored portions of the house. The problems arose because the panels, which needed to satisfy exacting tolerances, couldn’t be prefabricated but had to be made on-site—a slow, tedious, and error-prone process that in the end was justified by the fluidity and naturalness of the design it allowed Han to achieve.
The flowing, transparent character of the transformed, 5,400-square-foot siheyuan is immediately apparent. The glass walls offer no visual separation between the interiors and the open courtyards they surround. The most public spaces—the entry, living room, dining room, large tearoom, and kitchen—encircle the middle courtyard, a spacious rectangle with one rounded end. The more private areas—two bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms, a study, and an intimate tearoom—are clustered around the small, irregularly shaped rear courtyard, the site of three large trees. The bedrooms can be shut off from the courtyard with sliding slatted screens. The garage, various service rooms, and the rebuilt original entry gate occupy the other small courtyard, which abuts the lane.
“China’s traditional courtyard designs have always reflected the Eastern philosophy that man and nature should live in harmony together,” Han notes, adding that synchronization between indoors and outdoors was key to Qishe’s successful redevelopment. But even more, the architect prizes the way the compound blends the ancient and modern: “My favorite aspect of the project is the harmonious coexistence of the old and the new.”
Project Team: Wang Tonghui: Archstudio. Dong Tianhua: Lighting Consultant. Bamboo Era: Structural Engineer. Zheng Baowei, Yu Yan, Li Dongjie: MEP.