by Sunena V MajuSep 26, 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 Where architects breathe new life into buildings long abandoned and outdated; these derelict buildings which have long foregone their intended function could also signal a promise for future use.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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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