Outlooker Design converts an ancient Hui-style home into a restaurant and café

On the fringes of Hangzhou, China, this centuries-old residence has been bestowed with a new purpose, merging its traditional architectural roots with neat contemporary flourishes.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Dec 03, 2022

Home to an immense wealth of architectural heritage, on a scale that few other civilisations can ever hope to compare to, China’s built environment has seen a myriad of changes in recent years. This metamorphosis has been regularly questioned, both in terms of the contextual relevance of new construction ventures and how their results blend with or erase the existing built landscapes that have defined regional and national identities over millennia. Contrary to this, however, the country is also bearing witness to a considerable number of adaptive reuse undertakings, such as the MM Farm Boutique Hotel, Peitree Resort Yaoliang, or the Ceramic Art Avenue Taoxichuan, whose scope not only involves the creation of new functional spaces, but also includes the preservation and restoration of existing ones. Longwu Mountain, on the fringes of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, has provided the site for yet another stellar example of this kind of intervention, conducted by Chinese design practice Outlooker Design. Forever altering the makeup of a centuries-old Hui-style home, whose structure first saw the light of day during the time of the Qing dynasty, the practice's efforts have turned the building into a restaurant and café embedded into the verdant countryside.

  • The project is located amid expanses of farmland and forested stretches on the fringes of Hangzhou | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    The project is located amid expanses of farmland and forested stretches on the fringes of Hangzhou Image: Ping Zi
  • The structure was once an abandoned home with roots stretching as far back as the time of the Qing dynasty | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    The structure was once an abandoned home with roots stretching as far back as the time of the Qing dynasty Image: Courtesy of Outlooker Design

With agricultural plots and forested belts in its immediate vicinity, the ancient building's site offered a prime opportunity for inhabitants to disconnect from civilisation and breathe in all the tranquillity of nature. In conversation with STIR, the Director of Outlooker Design, Wang H. explains, “The client was Mr. Liu, a Hui-businessman, who found the old derelict building with the help of his friend and hoped to make use of it as a space for busy people in the city to have afternoon tea, partake in a meal, or even take a night off." As per the architects, the original owner of the abandoned structure could not be identified at first, but as per their speculations, the first residents might have been travellers from Huizhou who came to the region and commissioned the project in the style of their local vernacular architecture, in the Hui tradition—one of Chinese architecture’s most distinguished variants.  

Designed in the traditional Hui-style of Chinese architecture, the existing building was realised in wood, stone, and brick, capped by elaborate tile-clad roofing | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
Designed in the traditional Hui-style of Chinese architecture, the existing building was realised in wood, stone, and brick, capped by elaborate tile-clad roofing Image: Ping Zi

Commenting on the state they discovered the house in, Wang H. notes, “Most older buildings in China are made of wood. When we found it, there were already a lot of termites and xylocopa inhabiting it. So we initially had to deal with this infestation. Following this, we tried not to over-embellish the old building, but rather, showcase its ancient qualities. Our newly built addition, primarily found its place on the ground section. So there was no destruction of the old building required.” Externally, the structure’s façade design possessed an aged yet memorable quality and internally, its program was quite similar to that of an archetypal courtyard home, with a quadrate spatial order composed of four interconnected wings enclosing a void at the centre. Smooth, curving rooflines clad in worn tiles culminate in ornately detailed eaves, emphasising the project’s traditional roots.

  • A pure white pathway framed by wild plants leads towards the entrance, with a version of Willy Guhl's Loop Chair along its course | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    A pure white pathway framed by wild plants leads towards the entrance, with a version of Willy Guhl's Loop Chair along its course Image: Ping Zi
  • View of the entrance | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    View of the entrance Image: Ping Zi
  • Dark wood columns and walls frame the spaces approaching the central courtyard | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    Dark wood columns and walls frame the spaces approaching the central courtyard Image: Ping Zi

Approached via a narrow forested trail, which has now been paved and decorated with a version of Willy Guhl's Loop Chair, the contemporary features of the new intervention initially seep into the design along a white pathway, framed by “wild” plants, which create an impression that the structure has now become part of the forested landscape itself. Leading towards a circular glass plaque embedded into a screen at the entrance, with the name of the new space produced by this hospitality design project embossed on it. Little is revealed about the inner contents of the structure, due to the limited size and number of fenestrations along the building’s front face.

According to the architects, much of the new additions to the courtyard “grew” from the ground itself | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
According to the architects, much of the new additions to the courtyard “grew” from the ground itself Image: Ping Zi

"Old buildings in many cultures have small windows. I think this is because there were no materials equivalent in performance to the glass used in contemporary curtain walls at that time. The ancient Chinese loved nature and built their houses in the mountains. When the windows are opened, the natural scenery comes into view. This is not in line with the living habits of people today. There was some degree of moderation required to make full use of available daylight," Wang H. explains. While the Hui-style of traditional architecture seen in the original home is replete with ornamentation along with the use of natural wood, stone, and brick, the newer additions exert a much more subdued presence alongside it.

  • Seating areas with bean bags have been ordered inside the courtyard, providing a sense of intimacy to this section of the design | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    Seating areas with bean bags have been ordered inside the courtyard, providing a sense of intimacy to this section of the design Image: Ping Zi
  • Pockets of landscaping bring nature inside the courtyard | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    Pockets of landscaping bring nature inside the courtyard Image: Ping Zi

Blending the older and newer sections of the building into a harmonious whole was another core guideline throughout the design process, one which moulded both the revitalisation of the existing structure and the new hospitality architectural addition that would augment its functioning. The aesthetic of pure white walls and dark wooden accents was retained for the majority of the project’s extent, even in the contemporary additions on the ground floor. On the topic of spatial programming, Wang H. mentions: “There are two ways of thinking when referring to ancient buildings. The first way refers to the external form of the structure. The second involves investigating the habits and preferences of the ancients. We chose the latter in this case.”

  • Bespoke lighting fixtures and seating complement the contemporary touches to the aesthetic gamut | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    Bespoke lighting fixtures and seating complement the contemporary touches to the aesthetic gamut Image: Ping Zi
  • A white spiral staircase leads to the upper floor | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    A white spiral staircase leads to the upper floor Image: Ping Zi

The Chinese designer adds, “After the first owners purchased this location, they had a large area dedicated to the garden, and a very small area used as living quarters. This represented the aspirations of literati at the time. The current generation wants more indoor space because it gets cold in winter and hot in summer. However, we stuck to the ideas of the ancients, since you are in the mountains, it is imperative that you enjoy nature. In our design, we insisted that the atrium remain open and did not expand the interior area to immerse customers in nature and experience an ancient way of life.”

  • The staircase’s monomateriality is an ideal foil to its aged wood enclosure | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    The staircase’s monomateriality is an ideal foil to its aged wood enclosure Image: Ping Zi
  • The ornate woodwork of the existing building exists in harmony with newer additions | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
    The ornate woodwork of the existing building exists in harmony with newer additions Image: Ping Zi

Entering the structure, the central courtyard presents itself, framed by wooden columns, whose time-worn surfaces are a testament to the centuries of change they have endured. Open preparation areas, island counters, lounge areas with bean bag seating, and a gallery-esque part at the rear, screened by a wall of glass, provide the contemporary influence in this section of the café design. Above it, the ancient corbel brackets and moon beams decorating the roof trusses along the ceiling, attest to the unmatched craftsmanship and skill of the artisans who helped in bringing the original design to life.

Seating and dining areas make use of contemporary furniture | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
Seating and dining areas make use of contemporary furniture Image: Ping Zi

Floral motifs have been carved into the brackets, tying into the naturalistic themes that pervade the entirety of the design. "During the photo shoot, the young model Tao Zi told us, "Look at the carved flowers on the threshold, the left side is in full bloom and the right side is in the bud." Everyone immediately gathered around to praise her ingenuity, as even we, as designers, had failed to notice the intricacy of the home’s original design," says Wang H. 

Sleeping quarters on the upper floor feature lighter wood finishes against the dark wood framework | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
Sleeping quarters on the upper floor feature lighter wood finishes against the dark wood framework Image: Ping Zi

Reconciling the divergent attitudes of the past and present also helped direct Outlooker Design in choosing to restore or rework parts of the ancient wood architecture. As a consequence of this, much of the additions to the courtyard “grew” from the ground itself, in the form of landscape design, described by the architects as an intervention in land art. “Concerning the building's earlier residential functions, people generally prefer not to sleep in ancient houses, so we wanted to increase daylight and create an atmosphere of sunny living. Alternatively for the restaurant design, we kept the old wooden structure indoors. Finally, in spaces devoted to serving afternoon tea, we tried to be as fashionable as possible to attract younger crowds.” Hence, this aesthetic gradient in the zoning served to distinguish between program areas, creating seamless transitions through the entire spatial journey.

Exploded Axonometric View | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
Exploded Axonometric View Image: Courtesy of Outlooker Design

"With the interior design, we wanted to highlight something new. We used Loop Chairs, bespoke design chandeliers, and reeds. We wanted to be friends with the old building, this was our offering to its long history, as the old building already has its own undeniable beauty,” Wang H. relays. This attitude has been followed throughout the entirety of the interior scheme, from the seating spaces along the periphery of the courtyard which predominantly feature contemporary furniture designs, to the pure white spiral staircase leading to the upper level, whose monomateriality serves as a perfect foil to the aged wood enclosure around it. On the upper level, lighter wood tones complement the dark wood framework in the sleeping quarters, in a more earthy fusion of old and new. A much sparser layout of spaces is encountered here, with only a few dining areas and outdoor spaces looking into the courtyard.

Site Plan | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
Site Plan Image: Courtesy of Outlooker Design

Since much of the intervention was centred on elevating and preserving the building rather than giving it an entirely new identity, there is an evident degree of respect shown to the work of those that first gave the structure its character, in order to honour their contributions to the regional architectural canon. This reverence is especially visible in the understated quality of the contemporary elements used, which do not overshadow but converse with their older counterparts. It is this very notion of "generational friendship" that binds each of the seemingly disparate arms of the project, centuries apart in time, into a single cohesive contemporary architectural statement—one that speaks of the years and hands that have moulded it into the treasured piece of local history it is today and will continue to be in the future.

Roof Plan | Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou | Outlooker Design | STIRworld
Roof Plan Image: Courtesy of Outlooker Design

Project Details

Name: Renovation of old Hui-style buildings in Longwu, Hangzhou
Location: Longwu, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China
Year of Completion: 2022
Gross Built Area: 800 sqm
Client: RURO
Architect: Outlooker Design
Design Team: Wang H, Peng Y, Liu A
Landscape: Wood Bud Floral Studio
Collaborators: JZ Space Renderings
Consultants: RURO

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