Archstudio Converts a Beijing Courtyard House Into Bold Modern Compound

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By C.C. Sullivan

September 7, 2017.

If you know siheyuan, you know Beijing well. The vernacular courtyard house typology, which dates back many centuries, is emblematic of the city’s vanishing historical neighborhoods, called hutong, and an elemental building block of temples and monasteries. The typical quadrangle’s main house, forming the courtyard’s southern edge, adjoins east- and west-facing “side houses” and, directly across, an “opposite house”—all serving different members of an extended family. Gardens and decorated pathways connect the four structures, accessed via a scarlet gate. The court’s slate or stone paving generally continues into the houses, reflecting the area’s indoor-outdoor lifestyle.

As much as it represents Chinese culture, one 1,730-square-foot siheyuan in the Dashilar quarter of Beijing has been appropriated as a vision of change. Renovated by local firm Archstudio, what was once a traditional single-story residence has become Twisting Courtyard house: a half-acre compound reflecting action, convertibility, and transformation. Octogenarian owner Wang Yan wanted a dynamic redo. “She loves culture and the arts and has several estates in courtyard areas,” firm principal Han Wenqiang explains. The client envisioned a modern, multiuse property that could be booked by families or companies for activities such as retreats, business meetings, or overnight stays.

Choosing to largely retain the four original structures, Archstudio’s big move is deceptively simple: a curved ribbon of charcoal-gray courtyard pavers extends through the complex as a unifying gesture. Here and there, the undulating swath peels up to form sloping walls and roofs of various service zones, notably the all-white communal kitchen pairing solid surfacing with terrazo-like walls. Han calls the twist “the most difficult, radical, and controversial part” of the remake, subverting the “solemn and stereotyped impression” conveyed by the traditional siheyuan.

The suite in tearoom mode, with custom pieces including an elm seat and table set on a sisal hemp rug. Photography by Wang Ning and Jin Weiqi.

Still, a few customs are kept, if in new ways. From the outside, the converted house looks no different from most other addresses in the neighbo hood south of Tiananmen Square. The flowing brick surfaces serve both indoor rooms and the out- door court, where the ribbon ap- pears to hover over a garden of river rocks. In color and profile, the gentle curves, finished with clear epoxy resin, comfortably match the buildings’ existing gray masonry walls and arced roofline. The hawthorn tree is also original to the site.

The courtyard is bracketed to
the north and south by full-height glass, while the side houses, which serve as sleeping suites, are screened by oak slats for more privacy. The opposite house contains a third, larger suite that encompasses a convertible sleeping/hangout zone and a dining area that can also serve as reception. While some rooms reflect a clear purpose, such as the kitchen and office, others are designed to be reconfigured based on need. Embedded furniture systems, as Han calls them, offer fold-down and pullout convenience. In both side suites, an oak-clad niche converts from tearoom to sleeping/sitting nook courtesy of a retractable gauze curtain and a motorized table that descends into the floor. In the opposite house, a modernist Murphy bed flips up into a white-painted storage wall, freeing space for a sitting area outfitted with mobile furnishings. The firm has deployed such flexible concepts before, Han notes. “Twisting Courtyard house inherits thinking from previous transformative projects, with further exploration of the relationship between courtyard and architecture.”

The flowing courtyard rises to form walls in the northern- and southernmost structures, screening the main house’s kitchen (visible at rear) and, in the foreground, the opposite house bathroom. Photography by Wang Ning and Jin Weiqi.

Responding to the sequestered location as much as to the underfloor rooms and disappearing furniture, the owner has dubbed her business venture Hideaway Hotel Management Company. The hospitality model could catch on here in rapidly changing Beijing—and hopefully will. The prevailing trend over the last two decades has been to demolish entire neighborhoods to make way for massive skyscrapers and scale-less commercial structures. Archstudio has shown how to adapt the centuries-old buildings for contemporary uses; other recent projects include conversion of a siheyuan into a popular teahouse with curving glass walls, and the clever use of siheyuan layouts as a design module for a food-manufacturing plant outside the city.

As for Twisting Courtyard, it’s set in a hutong ideal for radical experimentation. The Dashilar neighborhood has lately become a creative quarter chock-full of art galleries, design studios, and buzzy cafés; it has also been the centerpiece of Beijing Design Week for several years running. Now architecture buffs can check in and experience the city’s more intimate transformative design possibilities in person.

Project Team: Huang Tao: Archstudio. Product Sources: Song Guochao: Furniture, Accessories. Bentu One: Lighting (Dining Areas).

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