Beijing's Historic Courtyard House Renovation

Architect Kengo Kuma relies on aluminium to restore Qianmen district's community hub.
27 February, 2017
In the heart of Beijing, just a five-minute walk from Tiananmen Square, is a part of the city that time has passed by.
Qianmen East is a district known for its classical Qing Ming architecture, with detailed roof lines and latticing on many courtyard homes that once connected neighbors. But, as architect Kengo Kuma notes, after population in the cities took off, the courtyard occupants didn't know each other anymore.

Many of the courtyard homes were torn down to make way for modern high-rise buildings. Those that remained "became like a slum," he said, and people even used the Chinese word Da-zayuan to describe them. The translated word means "messy dwellings," and that's what Kengo Kuma wants to reimagine.
So he began with a courtyard house – they're called Siheyuan – that is now a 200-square-meter office, with a same-sized café, for the adjacent Qianmen Beijing Center for the Arts. First, all of the columns and the beams of the wooden building were carefully removed, repaired and then replaced by local carpenters. Then the architect's vision for a mix of the traditional brick with new glass walls was built, opening the courtyard house to the street and taking a step toward the original community design.

Finally, the extruded aluminium screening was placed over and across the exterior walls. The system Kengo Kuma chose uses two different kinds of interlocking pieces that are put together like a jigsaw puzzle. They form an organic pattern that's meant to honor huagechuang, a Chinese architectural element, like lattice work, that was often installed at the doors and windows of traditional buildings.
From the stone-paved courtyard, and around the heavy wooden door, the aluminium appears as a geometrical grid – almost a heavy mesh – that drapes across the building. In sections where the brick façade cuts away to reveal all-glass walls, it creates visual interest for passers-by looking past the lattice and into the office and café spaces. The same principle holds for those working or socializing inside, whose views of the courtyard are uninterrupted, but screened, with the effect of clear glass blocks.
Image: DesignBoom
The commitment to connecting the private and public spaces is reflected in the aluminium layers, but also in a building detail visible from outside and in. As an interior staircase ascends against the wall facing the courtyard, the step rises are matched by the brick façade to mirror the staircase on the exterior, so they appear together – on the outside, ultimately rising behind the aluminium screening.
Image: DesignBoom
"What we have done in this project is a revival and proposal of new low-rise housings for various programs, which could meet the demand of today's urban environment," explains Kengo Kuma, to underscore how the arts center building is meant to anchor restoration of the historic neighborhood.

In fact, the historic enclave is such a hidden jewel and the architect is so committed to the entire neighborhood restoration that Kengo Kuma and Associates have made it the home of their new Beijing office. While the restoration project begins with the Qianmen Beijing Center for the Arts, it is meant to transform the entire community into an open townscape of mixed-use buildings – and a celebration of Chinese history, quietly tucked off an alley on the edge of one of Beijing's premier arts districts.