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Chinese contemporary architecture: Reinterpreting traditional designs in the modern, urban China

For years China was a playground for international architects, but new government policies aimed at curbing “bizarre” designs may usher in a new, more purposeful era of building

Jun 04, 2017 | By Sophie Kalkreuth

A bird’s nest, a boot, a pair of trousers — some of China’s most infamous contemporary buildings resemble everyday objects more than edifices. And together, they have embodied China’s desire, throughout the latest building boom, to assert its superpower status through an extraordinary built environment.

But this flamboyant approach to design is poised to change. The Communist Party recently announced offensives against “bizarre” architecture and Beijing has unveiled rules making it harder for “strange” buildings to be given planning permission. Included in the new guidelines, released in a statement from China’s State Council last year, is a ban on buildings devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are “economic, green and beautiful”.

The announcement made waves in the architecture and design worlds and was widely reported in the international media. But for many Chinese architecture firms the decree was far from revolutionary: for years, local studios have been quietly designing restrained buildings that are sensitive to their historical and urban contexts.

Beijing’s Haiting Villa townhouse by Arch Studio balances layering of wood with spare interiors.

Yung Ho Chang, an early pioneer of contemporary Chinese architecture established China’s first private architecture firm, Atelier FCJZ in 1993 and has long emphasised the need for architectural vernacular that is rooted in China. “Today, we have too many buildings in China that may look fashionable on the outside… and not at all connected with their locales”, the architect told me in 2012.

Chang’s most famous residence is the Split House. Unveiled at the 2002 Venice Biennial as part of Pan Shi Yi’s Commune by the Great Wall, it was one of the first projects of its scale that relied on Asian designers rather than Western “starchitects”. Poised on a steep slope, it is literally split in half, with a short glass bridge joining its two sides and forming a V-shaped plan that opens to the hillside. In many respects, the house is Chang’s take on the traditional Chinese courtyard dwelling. “When you see it from the outside, the house seems withdrawn, like any other courtyard house”, Chang describes, “But inside, you realise that it, in fact, is totally open to nature”.

Wang Shu, another pioneer of contemporary Chinese design, set up his Hangzhou studio, Amateur Architecture, with his wife Lu Wenyu in 1997 with the express aim of returning to traditional techniques of craftsmanship. The architect, who was later awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, spent nearly a decade travelling to the countryside to remote villages to learn about traditional building techniques and he incorporated traditional motifs and materials such as bamboo, wood and recycled bricks into his own designs.

META-project’s Courtyard by the Sea adapts a traditional dwelling to modern lifestyles

One of his early residential projects, the Vertical Courtyard, also references historic lane and courtyard homes. Wang contemporized the traditional building typology by turning the quadrangle on its side and creating double-height courtyards on every floor. “Every family has a courtyard and a roof”, Wang says of the project. “And even though the building is 100m tall, it still maintains the feeling of living only two floors high”.

This detail is important to Wang, who believes that much of modern architecture is too concerned with the building and not its inhabitants and how they actually live and feel. Building at a human scale remains crucial given China’s rapid rate of urbanisation and its ballooning megacities. And, following in the footsteps of the early pioneers, a number of design studios are addressing this and other challenges by drawing from the Chinese vernacular.

ZAO/standardarchitecture which is based in Beijing, recently completed the Micro Yuan’er project, an adaptive reuse initiative that introduces a series of micro spaces, a children’s library, an art space, dance studio and craft studio, into the darshilar neighbourhood and thereby attempts to preserve the many layers of traditional hutong (a lane or alley in a traditional residential area of a Chinese city, especially Beijing) life.

The attitude toward Beijing’s courtyard dwellings has typically swung between total eradication and a kind of static preservation. With this project, Zhang Ke, founder of standard architecture aimed instead to recognise the unique topography of courtyard living that developed in Beijing over the past 60 years and he considers the project a statement about how China should treat its urban history. “Altogether [the many components] keep, maintain and conserve the special quality of this big messy courtyard”, he says. “It becomes a place people feel used to, but they clearly realise something contemporary is going on”.

The Niyang River Visitor Center in Tibet, by ZAO/standardarchitecture

Zhang believes that re-imagining the courtyard, which is at the centre of traditional Chinese culture, could help to propel China’s new phase of building. “I think it could generate a new revolution in urban renewal in China if we start with courtyards—the traditional dwelling units—which is a biological study where you do genetic research of cells then new forms of life can be created”.

When it comes to luxury residences, local design studios are also eschewing American-style suburban mansions and instead re-interpreting traditional Chinese dwellings for contemporary lifestyles. Beijing-based studio META-Project recently completed a renovation of Courtyard near West Sea for a client who wanted the building to accommodate a variety of programs, including a teahouse, dining and party space, office and living areas. The firm’s solution was a design that moves between the traditional, introverted qualities of a courtyard house, and contemporary, extroverted areas that encourage social interaction. “Intervention in the hutongs needs to be based on the true understanding of life and culture…instead of rigid protection to its physical appearance”, the studio says.

Even China’s industrial architecture is taking reference from history. Beijing’s Arch Studio is perhaps best known for the Haitang Villa, an elegant townhouse that blends indoor and outdoor spaces and balances layering of wood with spare interiors. But the firm also recently completed a 60,000 square foot organic farmhouse in Tangshan that is influenced by traditional courtyard buildings.

The firm’s idea was to create a magnified version of a courtyard house with a self-contained and flexible workspace that formed a harmonious connection with the surrounding flat fields. The resulting structure is made up of material storage, a mill, an oil-pressing workshop and a packing area. There is an external corridor at the boundary of the building that connects the four areas and an inner courtyard that spans out randomly around the building and lets in light and air. The structure also sits in a 60cm cement base, a method of moisture-proofing the wood, which makes the farm look as if it is softly floating above the fields.

“I think the current status quo of China, with more reflection and possibilities, is even more exciting than the previous period of wild development”, says Zhang Ke. Subtle architecture may not grab headlines, but it does tend to outlast the more garish designs. And with the Chinese government backing projects that exhibit restraint and cultural specificity, the next phase of construction may end up producing more long-lasting structures that improve the lives of those who inhabit and interact with them.

This article was first published in Palace 19.

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