Sensitive adaptation and reuse of buildings remain an integral but often overlooked percentage of the architectural discipline. It is what, I believe, truly humanises the practice and vocation, professing and advocating for hope and second chances. Although simple in intent, the means to achieve the result and the result itself are deemed valuable to society and the environment. To preserve is to protect. To restore is to give new life.
An imagined commentary on the value of renovation, Beijing-based French design studio JSPA Design envisages the Dongcheng Courtyard House in China as an architectural expression of optimism and second chances. Located in the Dongcheng district in the ancient city of Beijing, their design proposal backs the restoration of a traditional, private residential home including the refurbishment of an existing Ming dynasty building along a hutong, a series of narrow alleyways created by connected courtyard houses, a distinct element seen in the built vocabulary of the Chinese capital.
As evident in this 660 sqm drawing board project, an ardent exploration of architectural expression and reinterpretation of local construction materials for the modern world, abjuring common styles and focusing on working with light, shade, space, and materiality allow JSPA Design to craft spaces that are indisputably contemporary but remain at the same time, respectful and deeply rooted in the site.
“The dialogue between nature and architecture takes major importance in (our) work. The design process focuses on how architecture can coexist with its environment or even how nature can impose itself on architecture and enter the building,” relay the French architect duo operating from Beijing, Johan Sarvan and Florent Buis, principal designers of JSPA Design.
“In the design process, it was important to give a clear reading of the old and the new while connecting both in a coherent architecture,” they elaborate on their imagined residential design that merges the old and new in a seamless system. The brick fence wall bordering the plot and the old building’s structure was left unscathed, while two parallel buildings were added to create a succession of three courtyards. The new additions to the courtyard architecture draw clearly from its context of more traditional buildings, reinterpreting it in a more contemporary manner—the double-pitched roof clad in traditional tiles is preserved but with slopes that go lower, accompanied by longer eaves. On the other hand, the traditional wooden structure is replaced by a combination of a thin steel one and a sea of warm wooden rafters.
The series of courtyards are envisioned to provide varying degrees of privacy and open space, as one progresses into the neat residential architecture. The spacious guest rooms and living spaces strewn with minimal decor are organised around the first courtyard, while the second and third patios are placed to enjoy complete privacy, along with the bedrooms and the study room.
A sleek, black steel canopy links the three volumes, made as thin as possible, a built manifestation of a straight drawn line, to conceal its structure from onlookers. This element generates the entrance to the Dongcheng Courtyard House, along with the clean, covered passages between the three buildings. This horizontal line also forms a common limit for the frameless glass windows for both, the existing and the imagined contextual architecture, in tandem with protecting the south facades from the sun’s wrath.
To this architectural system, three concrete elements are then added—two opaque ‘boxes’ housing the bathrooms are inserted like ‘plug-ins’, while a strict concrete frame creates a supplementary bedroom behind the living room. The strategy is successful in proposing a form of refuge and slow living, with a sense of being able to view the outside while remaining sheltered.
Because most of the imagined plot is previously unbuilt, it was possible for JSPA Design to envision an underground space to host the swimming pool and the gym. Accessed by a neat spiral staircase, this area is lit naturally by a patio on the north end, along with a linear ceiling window on the side, “let(ting) the structural beams appear and play as light reflectors for the underground space,” the design team explains.
A strong yet relevant contrast is established between the ground floor, discreetly combining the ancient city context replete with vernacular architecture with its traditional Chinese roof and the underground level that imbibes the nature and aesthetic of brutalist architecture. Concrete being used as the primary material to articulate the conceptual design determines an intriguing scenery brought forth by the play of natural light and shadows against its own texture.
Nonchalant, modern, stylish yet grounded, the private residence speaks of reverence, of taking an effort to communicate with the city’s heritage and history, apparent in its cultural architecture. According to the designers, the realisation of this Chinese architecture is expected to begin this year.
Many coveted buildings, from religious to stately and educational, have been razed across the globe, only to be replaced with less than satisfactory structures, or left abandoned altogether. Taking the short road of capitalist, hegemony-led thinking (read: lack of vision?) is nothing short of cultural vandalism. We have much to learn about how our ancestors lived and built, how they understood and constructed spaces with natural materials, intently studying nature to keep its elements at bay or embrace them lovingly.
Examples are replete of modern architects referencing vernacular, traditional architecture within their contemporary designs, often combining the two in adaptive reuse or restoration projects. Architects today may want to rethink how in their built endeavours, they decide to become custodians of existing architecture, minimising waste and needless, thoughtless construction.
Name: Dongcheng Courtyard House
Location: Beijing, China
Interior Area: 660 sqm
Architect: JSPA Design
Design team: Johan Sarvan, Florent Buis (principal designers)