by Jincy IypeJan 18, 2023
Located in Huairou District, in what used to be a former defence site, China-based architectural practice nsaaa has designed a contemporary courtyard-style residential building—Slow Courtyard in the Hills. Located near China’s Yaoziyu Fortress, which was built more than four centuries ago at the foot of the Great Wall, near Beijing, Yaoziyu served as a military camp during the construction of the wall and dates back to the Ming Dynasty in the late 14th century. In the context of the historically significant Yaoziyu palace, the residential architecture of Slow Courtyard in the Hills, also referred to as Bridge Yard, is a physical embodiment of the districts rich culturally past.
To realise the intangible history of the fortress in architecture, the design takes inspiration from China’s traditional courtyard houses called ‘Siheyuan’—dating back over 2000 years. Siheyuan specifically refers to a courtyard that is surrounded by buildings on all four sides. Throughout history, courtyard architecture has influenced residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family businesses, and even government offices of China. Siheyuan, are an interesting aspect of Chinese architecture, and act as a physical timestamp that connects the living habits of the past with our contemporary world.
With Slow Courtyard in the Hills, nsaaa aims to reinterpret the courtyard house culture of ancient China. The Chinese architects’ approach extends towards reviving craftsmanship and the values of the handmade in a context that is now widely dependent on industrialisation and machine-derived construction. “Humanity’s reliance on industrialisation has reached an unprecedented level, from its beginnings as a convenience to the people to the point of total dependence. This is consciously and unconsciously changing the way people see and think of the world. We are always vigilant and suspicious of this. Therefore, in this design, we wish to bring people back intentionality. By creating a sense of craftsmanship through the very fundamental construction methods, we wish people come here to touch, to feel, and to think with their hearts. To really feel a building and thus nature," shares nsaaa, in an official release.
Yaoziyu Fortress has housed many people for the last 4000 years and borrowing from these historic stories and cultural experiences, the architects employed a material palette that reflects this aspect of the structures' past in the final project. The brushed stone used for the main interior and exterior finishes emerges from the remains of the fortress. The structure has an interesting take on material usage and spatial programming. The brushed stone finish, an integral material used throughout the project, showcases Huairou’s rich culture, which now seems lost in time.
The spatial layout of Slow Courtyard in the Hills comprises a living area, a roof terrace, a loft house with a separate courtyard, an atrium, a kitchen, and three bedrooms. The approach was to build a form that blends with the site and grows inwards with limitations to its boundaries. Aligning to its alternate name, Bridge Yard, aims to bridge the old to new, ancient to modern, traditional to contemporary and nature to architecture. The presence of the courtyard and the bridge-like connections encourages the design to be in constant dialogue with the landscape and natural surroundings.
While the colour palette consists of an earthy tone to compliment its surroundings, the modern aesthetics of the residence with flat roofs, multi-storeys, and a geometric form, contradicts the outer form of the neighbouring houses. The buildings surrounding the fortress exhibit a more traditional architecture with tiled sloping roofs, brick architecture, and organically shaped stone structures. Though the structure aims to reflect the cultural past, it also makes a strong modern-day statement with the carefully planned solid-void relation visible throughout the form. Adopting these principles into the joinery as well, the structure uses a system of square steel keel with bamboo and timber panels, crafted by the workers on site for its doors and windows.
By combining functionality with aesthetics and also maintaining the sanctity of the conventional material, the facade design displays experimentation of patterns, textures, and materiality. “The purity of the building façade in terms of solidity and transparency is expressed, thus making the specific construction effective and pointing to a combination of function and aesthetics. The handcrafted feel of the building is an undeniable testimony to the creation of a tangible entity,” shares nsaaa. While bringing together the many factors of past and present, the project looks like a monochromatic physical entity that stands in a historical place, as a tangible connection to its cultural roots.
(Text by Aaryaa Joshi, intern at STIRworld)