60,000 metres of hemp ropes articulate hope and poise in MM Farm Boutique Hotel

Domain Architects reveals the understated value of existing buildings with the renovation of an abandoned primary school in rural China, now transformed into a serene luxury hotel.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Nov 11, 2022

There is a school of thought that believes relevance in architecture is sought most significantly through projects that elevate existing ones—the subcategory of renovation and adaptive reuse in architecture and design is plump with endeavours that transform, maintain, restore, and preserve elements of surviving structures. Where architects breathe new life into buildings long abandoned and outdated; these derelict buildings which have long foregone their intended function could also signal a promise for future use. Could this relevance also be perceived as optimism in architecture? As celebrated British architect Norman Foster pondered once—“If you weren’t an optimist, it would be impossible to be an architect.”

MM Farm Boutique Hotel displays restrained uniqueness, as designed by Shanghai-based Domain Architects | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
MM Farm Boutique Hotel displays restrained uniqueness, as designed by Shanghai-based Domain Architects Image: Sun Haiting

In contrast, countries are increasingly choosing to illustrate and build highly 'contemporary' architectural landscapes—building mega, mass-produced structures in the name of urban development. One of the foremost nations that come to mind, where this scenario is unprecedentedly booming, is China, a country that has erased a significant amount of its heritage and cultural architecture, as well as natural landscapes, in a haste to modernise itself. In this prevailing setting, it is quite unlikely to find established firms attempting a restorative project, with genuine intent and poise.

Domain Architects renovated an abandoned primary school building into a high-end hotel in rural China | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
Domain Architects renovated an abandoned primary school building into a high-end hotel in rural China Image: Sun Haiting

There is beauty in revival

Here is a built tale in contrast, and hope: In an extremely urbanised downtown in China, there is a mountainous village surrounding the city centre of Beijing that has remained rural, natural, untamed, and in a nutshell—unhurried and serene. A long-abandoned primary school called this site home for years, before being renovated by Shanghai-based Domain Architects into a luxury hospitality architecture, that retains a slow character. Now, the MM Farm Boutique Hotel project reveals a simple but significant model in the revival of traditional, rural, and virtuous systems of building.

Thatched roofs accompany pitched ones covered in stretched hemp ropes | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
Thatched roofs accompany pitched ones covered in stretched hemp ropes Image: Sun Haiting

With high perimeter walls, the former building consisted of four rows of brick and timber frame houses, arranged in repetition. As a rented property, the clients wished to renovate it into a high-end boutique hotel, but this came with its own challenges —“Due to the lease terms and local regulations, any addition, subtraction, or major change to the original structures was not allowed,” the Chinese architects relay.

The original site | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
The original site Image: XU Xiaomeng

On the face of it, the result does not look like an overtly 'luxurious' structure, with its almost dull colour palette of dry beige and plain white, which might add to its charm and intrigue of being one. Dry thatch roofs crown the four single-storey houses, accompanying minimal pitched roofs placed at a higher level, made with stretched hemp ropes. Decoration and relief come in the form of subtle transitions in texture, as materials and spaces shift, with the soft company of freshly mowed grass outside.   

  • Inside the single storey MM Farm Boutique Hotel | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
    Inside the single storey MM Farm Boutique Hotel Image: Sun Haiting
  • The slightly textured walls are painted bare white | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
    The slightly textured walls are painted bare white Image: Sun Haiting

Hemp as hope

"As an extremely common material since prehistoric times, hemp rope has been rarely used in architecture on a large scale. In this project, we used 60,000 metres of hemp rope to change the facades while barely touching the existing houses," reveals project’s lead architect and studio’s founder, Xu Xiaomeng.

60,000 meters of hemp rope were used to transform the look of the existing houses, barely touching their facades | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
60,000 meters of hemp rope were used to transform the look of the existing houses, barely touching their facades Image: Sun Haiting

The original orange-coloured tiles and walls of the primary school were refreshed with the inclusion of this ropes mesh, where viewers can now experience the project in a new light, as varying vistas open up as vantage points that alter while walking.

The stretched hemp ropes also create shadows to adorn the bare exterior of the luxury hotel | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
The stretched hemp rope mesh also create shadows to adorn the bare exterior of the luxury hotel Image: Sun Haiting

The hemp ropes also produce rich and dramatic light effects that end up adorning the volumes, both inside and outside, "in both intended and unintended ways," the architect says.

A system of elevated paths undulate gently, connecting the four houses of the hotel | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
A system of elevated paths undulate gently, connecting the four houses of the hotel Image: Sun Haiting

The hospitality design takes residence close to the Miyun Reservoir, but the design team shares that it is next to impossible for guests to actually become aware of this water body's presence. “We recreated the atmosphere of a waterfront settlement with a system of public paths elevated from the reflection pool, undulating up and down in gentle slopes. After the hotel started operation, we unexpectedly found that the various heights of the paths encouraged many ways of playing with water for both adults and children,” Xiaomeng reveals.

  • Framed views of small courtyards inside the hotel reveal beauty in simplicity | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
    Framed views of small courtyards inside the hotel reveal beauty in simplicity Image: Sun Haiting
  • A shaded area of the MM Farm Boutique Hotel | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
    A shaded area of the MM Farm Boutique Hotel Image: Sun Haiting

The only area adjacent to the road was made into the primary, major entrance, wherein the first white house one encounters from the south is articulated into a service and public space, comprising the reception desk, restaurant, kitchen, staff housing, and more. The other three volumes with thatched roofs include guest rooms, with six double rooms and five suites, with each room enjoying a courtyard with complete privacy.

Protruding glass displays serve as bath tubs or tea rooms in the guest rooms | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
Protruding glass displays serve as bath tubs or tea rooms in the guest rooms Image: Sun Haiting

A step away from the ascetic language followed by the boutique hotel, glass vitrines performing as bath tubs or serving as tea rooms, protrude from these guest rooms, "enabling guests to 'dive' into the courtyards and experience them in an immersive way," says the design team, bringing a hint of Scandinavian design aesthetics to the Chinese architecture.

  • The original straw roof sheathing had acquired mould, and was replaced by wood board | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
    The original straw roof sheathing had acquired mould, and was replaced by wood board Image: Sun Haiting
  • The original volumes of the primary school were kept mostly intact | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
    The original volumes of the primary school were kept mostly intact Image: Sun Haiting

As a gentle intervention, the original straw roof sheathing that had acquired mould was replaced by wooden boards. Apart from this, and some slight changes to the partitions and fenestrations, the original volumes of the school were kept almost intact by Domain Architects, keeping the restoration as natural as possible.  

The MM Farm Boutique Hotel illuminated at night | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
The MM Farm Boutique Hotel illuminated at night Image: Sun Haiting

The interior design is intentionally kept monastic, with bare walls and next to no windows. Illuminated at night, the project almost seems like a working model, with light glowing from within the hemp rope gaps.

The hotel’s skin and interior bear a monastic character | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
The hotel’s skin and interior bear a monastic character Image: Sun Haiting

The hotel architecture subtly boasts of sustainability credentials—"Due to the extensive use of natural materials such as timber and hemp rope, and short-distance suppliers, the carbon footprint of the entire renovation project is estimated to be close to zero," shares Xiaomeng.

The hotel employs timber and hemp rope extensively as primary materials | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
The hotel employs timber and hemp rope extensively as primary materials Image: Sun Haiting

Renovation, despite its righteous identity, also carries its own cross of producing a significant amount of construction waste because of interventions, depending on changing tenants and their preferences. In the same context, to combat this project's impact, it was conceived to reach a significantly practical, environment-friendly ending; at the end of its lease period, all the steel employed for this project shall be recycled, while the hemp ropes will be buried on-site, returning dignified, to dirt and nature.  

Passages inside the MM Farm Boutique Hotel | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
Passages inside the MM Farm Boutique Hotel Image: Sun Haiting

"After helping this project to complete its ephemeral life, all the natural materials we used will also return to their life cycles in the natural world,” Domain Architects assures.

All the steel employed for this project shall be recycled, while the hemp ropes will be buried on-site | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
All the steel employed for this project shall be recycled, while the hemp ropes will be buried on-site Image: Sun Haiting

The adaptive reuse also hired local villagers, many of whom are not professional workers, to construct and build the 630 sqm hotel design, straying away from construction practices employed for most projects in the country’s capital. This also ensured the strengthening of the relationship between the village and its inhabitants, who worked closely to grant this school a renewed life as a hotel. "Affected by the COVID-19 control policies, traffic restrictions, and seasons, the building materials had to be sourced from locations as close as possible, while the actual construction time was only three months. Therefore, we had to find a low-tech and light intervention strategy to reform the site experience," Xiaomeng explains.

Inside one of the guest rooms | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
Inside one of the guest rooms Image: Sun Haiting

The MM Farm Boutique Hotel leads as a bona fide example—of restoration and renovation projects, to be seen as another facet of sustainable architecture where material, energy, spatial, and transport related waste is combatted. Perhaps an increased indulgence in such projects should be encouraged and deemed a 'trend', where architects choose to not build new structures, seeing the understated value of existing buildings, determined to improve the performance of buildings that have overrun their purpose and make the most of the embodied carbon spent constructing them.

Floor plan | MM Farm Boutique Hotel by Domain Architects | STIRworld
Floor plan Image: Courtesy of Domain Architects

Project Details

Name: Beijing MM Farm Boutique Hotel
Location: Beijing, China
Gross Built Area: 630 sqm
Year of completion: 2022
Architect: Domain Architects
Design team: Xu Xiaomeng (Lead Architect), Wang Hannah, Liu Zhipeng, Zhou Mingdi
Structural Consultant: AND Office
Construction: Local Villagers

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