Ma Yansong on buildings of freedom that rethink our fellowship with nature
by Jincy IypeMar 24, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jincy IypePublished on : Dec 04, 2020
Chinese architecture firm MAD has completed the transformation of a heritage courtyard building into YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten, where nature and history collide under a massive, organic orange-red roof. Commissioned by the Yuecheng Group back in 2017, the project blends pre-school education and elder care as it is located next to a senior citizen’s apartment in Beijing, following their ethos of “intergenerational integration”. The kindergarten’s most distinctive feature is its undulant floating roof that is also a playground for the kids, sitting in colourful contrast to the existing grey roofs of the historic buildings it wraps itself around.
The roof's flowing, unpredictable shape symbolises freedom and free flowing creativity, while the school’s hybrid architecture blends amid nature and a multilayered urban narrative.
With a site area of 9,275 sqm, YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten formerly comprised an 18th century Siheyuan courtyard (a Chinese building typology where structures surround a central courtyard on its four sides), an adjacent replica courtyard built in the 1990s, and a four-story modern building. Three years in the making, the kindergarten reaches a height of 21.5 metres and now hosts 390 kids aged 1.5 to six years, presenting them with diverse spaces that foster a relaxed and playful learning environment.
“When I looked back at my own kindergarten years, I always wondered what it is that kids long for the most. Perhaps it is freedom and love. A kindergarten doesn’t always have to offer complex hardware or fixtures, but it must always make kids feel free and loved – something that leads them to endless possibilities,” says Ma Yansong, Founder of MAD Architects, who also grew up in Beijing.
MAD Architects decided to remove the replica courtyard outside the 18th century one, replacing it with a new space that embraces the Siheyuan coutyard. The new space is informed with a flowy, low and gentle posture, presenting a direct contrast to the orthodox architecture of the historic building. “This tension, emerging from different dimensions in time, gives the building a renewed life. The new does not overshadow the old, while the past does not overtake the present,” shares the design team.
The new structure forms the floating roof above that links a plethora of independent spaces underneath, making it seem like a whole other realm when one experiences it. MAD’s intervention aims to elevate and stand apart from the existing vocabulary of educational architecture and of old Beijing with its red walls and yellow tiles (of the Forbidden City palace) or the blue bricks and grey tiles of hutongs and alleys, “to see and imagine the long history in front of them from another time and space”.
The undulating red roof evokes a children’s proverb from old Beijing – “If you go three days without being punished, the roof will cave in”. According to MAD, the “caving” topography of the roof forms a vast Martian landscape, inspiring kids to run around, play, socialise with it and with each other. “When combined with the ancient courtyard, old trees, and infinite sky, a surreal environment inspires children to think, reflect, and chase endless possibilities,” they share.
“Old Beijing has many 'cracks' - tunnels, roofs, courtyards. The courtyards, in particular, reflect an oriental view of nature. Here, nature becomes the main subject, and the architecture instead revolves around it. In the courtyard there is nature, the world, and human life, acting together to form the core of the architecture,” adds Yansong.
Three fresh courtyards were designed around several existing trees on site, which now punch through the ceiling, and match with the old Siheyuan buildings. These are connected to the rooftop above via slides and stairs, adding character to the pre-school, facilitating light and ventilation inside its warm timber interiors.
The triple entry courtyard house is connected to the new space through corridors and courtyards, also hosting extra-curricular, arts and other creative activities, and a staff office. The trees, eaves and tiles proclaim its former heritage and natural atmosphere, giving the children a platform to understand and know their history.
A warm and bright interior awaits as one enters from above. By suspending the interior of the structure from a single aluminium grille the visual height is lowered, resulting in a warmer, cosier space that responds to the scale and comfort needed by children. Floor to ceiling glass walls fill the space with ample sunlight, and also connect visually with the old courtyard. “Here, the three-hundred-year linear history between the old and new buildings becomes three-dimensional,” relays the studio.
The first-floor transitions into the sunken level on the lobby’s east side as a cleverly designed theater, which is topped with a rounded wall of bilingual comic books. The theatre’s stage also acts as an entrance to a two-level indoor playground, which hosts activities as well as performance and sports events. The kindergarten also has a parent’s centre, art and dance classrooms, artwork showroom, reception and administration office, kitchen and nap room.
The lobby’s west end advances into a learning space with a unique density and scale, along with a flowing spatial layout, resulting in a free, comfortable and communal setting. Instead of closed walls, curved walls at regular intervals separate the various learning groups, creating a ‘borderless’ interior design that gives off a more open, relaxed school atmosphere, fostering interaction between children and the staff, and with their built environment.
With YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten, MAD Architects reveal how the old and new can co-exist in visual harmony, how contradictory architectural elements from different time periods can maintain their individuality and yet exist together. “It offers the children an understanding of history and place, and the preservation of nature, bringing an inclusiveness between the old and new design – one that adds value to the community,” observes Yansong.
Name: YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten
Location: Beijing, China
Site Area: 9,275 sqm
Building Area: 10,778 sqm
Height: 21.05 m
Year of completion: 2020
Client: Yuecheng Group
Architect: MAD Architects
Principal Partners in Charge: Ma Yansong, Dang Qun, Yosuke Hayano
Design Team: He Wei, Fu Changrui, Xiao Ying, Fu Xiaoyi, Chen Hungpin, Yin Jianfeng, Zhao Meng, Yang Xuebing, Kazushi Miyamoto, Dmitry Seregin, Zhang Long, Ben Yuqiang, Cao Xi, Ma Yue, Hiroki Fujino
Executive Architect: China Academy of Building Research
Interior Design: MAD Architects, Supercloud Studio
Landscape Architect: MAD Architects, ECOLAND Planning and Design Corporation
Lighting Design: Lumia Lighting Design
Ceiling R&D: Shanghai Siyou Metallic Materials Co., Ltd.
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