by Anmol AhujaJan 05, 2022
One seldom finds examples of recreational architecture that can serve as strong reminders of distinct and distant terrains, or ones that can effortlessly montage the variables evocative of specific kinds of architecture. With the constraints that appear as a result of modish necessities, it often becomes infeasible to replicate such rich experiences exhaustively. However, there are some edifices that successfully bear the responsibility of satiating the appetite appertaining to all the senses. I happened to chance upon two such spaces recently.
The first, parked away in a posh locality in New Delhi, India, is a cafe that insists on delivering the Himalayan experience in the midst of a bustling metropolis. Since it was impossible to offer visitors a peek into the hilly terrains that define the Himalayas, the designers of the cafe focused on two key details. One, the interior architecture and furniture, where the usage of wood, exposed concrete, pared down decorations, white walls and scruffily finished floor tiles serve as a reminder of hilly architecture—which still relies heavily on locally sourced materials and minimally utilises industrial mediums and tools for building. Second, the incidental location of the cafe next to the evergreen neem trees—which not only shelters and shields the structure from intense sunrays, hence letting indirect light filter through its heavy foliage and through the glass screen that adorns a wall of the building—but also offers vestigial glimpses of the surrounding areas through its verdant visage. One can surmise that it is sometimes the paucity or absence of a cohesive image of the desired scenery that sets the mood, ushers curiosity, and pushes people to imagine (from what they know of) in order to fill in the gaps that pervade their extant location.
A similar method of minimalist ornamentation and the profusion of voids and gaps that offer fragmentary glimpses into proximal areas (hence leaving out details for one’s imagination to fill in) can be seen in a cafe design in the neighbouring country of China. Yusan Cafe—the second design that I came across recently, and which, even from a distance, inveigled me to believe in its capacity to deliver a calm multisensorial experience to its visitors. Designed and built by Edge Architects, the cafe is located in Eryuan County, in northern Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture.
The architects of the structure define it as "a 'house-shaped’ settlement in a square box.” Its plan is inspired by the traditional courtyard-style homes found in the nearby villages (located at the foot of the mountains to the west of Eryuan County) of the Bai ethnic group. Yusan Cafe is, however, a contemporary recreation of this spatial structure. Eryuan County is a fifth-tier city in China where consumer habits and spending capacities are relatively humbler in comparison to first-tier cities. The customer base for the cafe, hence, mainly comprises local civil servants. Since the differentiation of the various ranks and their corresponding privacies are important factors in the city, Edge Architects, too, designed the 13 individual cabins in a distinct manner, such that these separate boxes could 'better strengthen the sense of domain in each area, which is also in line with the focus on the village morphology,’ the inspiration for which is derived from the spatial morphology of the traditional villages (of the Bai group). “The ‘village’ composed of 13 wooden box huts creates a readable spatial conflict with the original space, aiming to break the unconscious state of the original space,” asserts Xi Chen, founder of Edge Architects and lead architect on the project.
Edge Architects, in following and superimposing the spatial configuration of the nearby village onto the plan made ready for Yusan Cafe, manages to stay true to the ideas and ethos that guide the architectural firm. Chen asserts that the name of the design studio, too, was chosen to reflect their intent of deriving inspiration from atypical and oft-forgotten systems and traditions. He shares, “The corresponding face of the term ‘Edge’ is ‘mainstream’ or ‘centre,’ which also represents the ‘back’ or easily forgotten parts of things. In China, we have begun to habitually forget. But, we believe that amongst these forgotten things, there are a large number of aspects that are worth continuing, such as ancient but wise craftsmanship. So, regarding the spirit of Edge Architects, we believe it can be summarised as ‘optimism in pessimism’ and the so-called ‘craftsmanship spirit.’”
When asked about the brief shared by the client for the cafe design, Xi Chen shares, "The owner of Yusan Cafe is not only a barista but also a musician, so, in addition to the functional areas related to coffee and snack, they also hoped to have an open space for owners, customers, and friends to meet, mingle and share stories and music.” Hence, the architect designed a space at the end of a secluded alley, with a central courtyard, such that it strays away from the hustle and bustle of the neighbourhood. The cafe provides a detached space that is also open to the environment. Although positioned in the midst of various residences, and on a land where the residents of the city build their own houses, the cafe manages to reserve some privacy without divorcing the visitors from the larger landscape.
The self-built households in the vicinity are usually constructed using bricks and concrete, and are high-storied structures. Against a context such as this, Chen aimed to create a space that stood out, not only in terms of its visual heft but also in the experience that it could deliver. This led him to accommodate 13 different wooden boxes or sub-cabins on the site, such that they sporadically encompass the courtyard space, the ground floor and the first floor. These boxes are inserted into the existing space in a manner such that they occupy the ‘square box.’ Their arrangement, however, is twisted, shoulder to shoulder. This configuration gives form to a microcosmic settlement pattern that is ‘tight inside and loose outside.’ Both, the material and colour palette of the cafe, as well as the ephemeral glimpses granted through the scattered punctures on the cabin walls, allow the visitors to experience an atypical episode within the walls of the structure.
The 13 wooden cabins are modified iterations of the basic ‘house’ type in the area. They are distinctly sized, detailed and punctured with openings to fit into the space designated for them. Their fenestrations adeptly frame interior glimpses of the cafe, and offer different interior views depending on the position of the viewer. “The overall budget of the entire project was limited and needed to be controlled within one hundred and twenty thousand yuan. In order to better meet the design needs and cost requirements in the selection of individual wooden boxes, plywood produced locally in Yunnan was ultimately selected as the main material for building wooden box houses,” Chen shares. Some other materials used in the construction of the cafe include glass, metal, concrete, and local red bricks.
The Chinese architect designed the wooden cabins in reference to the dimensions of the plywood board, with a base that measures 2.4 metres on all sides. Comprising the wooden boards and metal components, Chen constructed these cabins, each of which can function as an independent structure. They can each be detached from the original spatial structure, reoriented and placed as a separate unit. "The cabin design gives a sense of place under the eaves, while the combination of furniture and wooden box cabin creates an abstract sense of domain, making each wooden box cabin form a relatively independent area for guests to use,” mentions an excerpt from the press release.
The slightly twisted indoor cabins of the Yusan Cafe give way to small paths, as well as an open-to-sky space in the centre. When asked what his favourite spot in the cafe is, Chen shares, “My favourite part is the courtyard and the spaces that penetrate each other.” While the pathways sequestered between two parallelly placed cabins give a sense of depth to the cafe, passages that are curved, blur and hide impending encounters, thus building anticipation amongst the visitors. The various window openings on the cabin walls further help align the line of sight across the space, such that viewing the cafe through these punctures enriches the visual experience, while also helping it assume an apparent spatial depth. It is through these elements that offer restricted, yet dynamic and distinct peeks into the various interior portions of the cafe, that the design manages to deliver a unique experience. One can expect a differently framed view of the courtyard, the cabins, and even the proximal structures, through these punctures. It's a characteristic that ushers individuals to visit, glance and roam through the space several times, in anticipation of a new view.
Name: Yusan Cafe
Location: Jihe Lane, Eryuan County, Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China
Area: 216 square metres
Year of completion: 2023
Architect: Edge Architects
Lead Architect: Xi Chen
Design team: Xi Chen, Suyang Liu, Chen Yao, Yinpeng Yang, Jing Yang, Chen Qian(trainee)
Resident architect: Suyang Liu
Consultants: Carpenter Xiong Yizhong Team, Liang Li