Rebuilding Courtyard Houses and Public Spaces

Department: Architecture
Lead Architect: Wang Weijen (Wang Weijen Architecture)

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Villages in China are facing critical social-economic challenges along with urgent issues on physical environment including dilapidated building and the poor condition of community and public spaces. Wang Weijen Architecture has started the design explorations in Songyang since 2012 by restoring a Courtyard House in Pingtian, as well as the Village Hall in Jieshou. The two projects in two villages each slowly extended to their surroundings, rebuilding patios and plazas, houses and temples one after another, establishing a sequence of new architecture and communal spaces shared by villagers.

Through a series of projects unfolded in villages, the research gradually developed a clear position and methods of architectural practice in traditional villages under transformation, defining critical issues and strategies for architectural and urban design in the context of rural China. Highlighting knowledge developed from understanding village site, history, fabric and typology, the project addresses the dual-role of architect as a practitioner and researcher. Connecting points by points into lines and networks, the rural strategy of acupuncture by the architect brings architecture together with public spaces, integrating production and culture tourism with daily lives.

The rebuilding of the courtyard houses in Pingtian explores the system of structural spaces and the tectonic of rammed earth, timber and steel, demonstrating the design integration between modern architecture and traditional technology. The new village-hall in Jieshou opens up an urban cross-section connecting the historical temple to the waterfront, while the renovation of courtyard houses of Zhuo-Lu turns private courtyards into semi-public spaces, linking village architecture into fabric, extending to the surrounding nature.

Re-addressing issues of community engagements and construction innovations, the project demonstrates the significance of social and tectonic concerns over architecture. By promoting a gentle method of typological transformations, the project advocates an urban-rural strategy of acupuncture design, rebuilding narratives of public spaces for Chinese villages.

Village I: Pingtian

Hotel as fabric in the mountain village

Pingtian is a typical mountain village of Songyang with houses array along the contour facing the valley. Surrounded by layers of distant mountains and adjacent terraces of vegetable gardens and tea fields, fishponds and bamboo woods, the village houses and their temples form a self-sustained community of production and consumption integrated nature and ecology. Inspired by successful village B&B stories, Mr Jiang and his father started the family mountain inn by renovating their surrounding vacant houses rented from relatives, hoping that the new business can revitalize the economy of their village, introducing new production, employment opportunities and vitality to Pingtian.

Starting from the centre of courtyard house and its adjacent patios, Pingtian Cloud Village Hotel is composed of clusters of guestrooms, cafe, and workshops converted from original houses within the village fabric, shaping an unique spatial experience of accommodation in an authentic village setting. Walking up the steps through the village path, a sequence of patios and buildings designed by Wang Weijen Architecture along the main path forms the core experience of the Village Hotel: Courtyard House Restaurant and West-wing guestroom, Tea-Pavilion, Reception House with Agriculture Showroom and Guestrooms, leading to a Stage-Pavilion for the outdoor theatre plaza at the village top.

Exploring typological and spatial potentials

Based on the footprint of original house, the re-construction of the new Courtyard House Restaurant adopts and reuses the original rammed earth wall-enclosure, re-constructing the main structure with traditional timber frame and tiled roof. By opening up all partitions and lifting the privacy of rooms, the new courtyard house highlights the modular of Chinese timber-structural system through new experiences with open-flow of spaces. Walking in-between the continuous spaces defined by rhythms of post and beam, the changing angles of sunlight and temperature through the louver-panels framing the courtyard patio become the reference for time in spaces, amplifying and negotiating boundaries between architecture and landscape, extending our body into the piece of nature in the patio. By adding the stairway with corner rooms at the west-court, the design also creates a mini light-well garden and pond, incorporating additional rooms with traditional aesthetic sensitivity.

Tea-Pavilion and Patios

Public spaces for villagers and visitors

Adopting topography by extending the kitchen to the south and the service-wing to the east, the new courtyard house also provides podium-deck and patios for the community, thus becomes public spaces for the villagers. Anchoring at the southeast corner of the courtyard house between the podium and patio, the Tea-Pavilion rebuilt from a storage-shed strategically becomes the vista focus of village path. Looking down toward the valley-view beyond village houses, the open pavilion enjoys a mountain-view toward the front and also behind through an angled skylight from above. The installation of Tea-Pavilion as a spatial catalyst, successfully activates the upper plaza opposite of the Café, leading to the next reconstruction of the reception hall with showroom and guestrooms.   

Agriculture Showroom with Guestroom

Typological transformation through
public-private programs

Having a gable façade facing the upper patio of the central plaza, the reconstruction of the reception Hall and guestroom adopts the footprint of original farmhouse by reusing its rammed earth wall-enclosure. By turning its linear light-well along the retaining wall as the stairway atrium, the design organises a sequence of guestrooms along the thick earthen wall facing mountain views. With a variety of steel-framed deep windows and balcony projection arranged for different room functions, the solid façade with animated steel windows along the alleyway provides a new spirit to the traditional village fabric, while the other façade at the upper level parallel to the village path, expressing a form of contemporary translucency through the use of light-weighted timber louver with window glass panels. The reception hall and showroom for village agriculture products at the lower level with unique characters through the use of bamboo louver ceiling as well as wood and steel-plate shelf, not only become the centre focus of the village hotel, but also serve as a communal lounge of the village for various public events and workshops.

Tectonics with Narratives

Rammed-earth, masonry, timber and steel   

The rebuilding of the courtyard houses in Pingtian village explores the system of structural spaces and the tectonic of rammed earth, timber and steel, demonstrating the design integration between modern architecture and local technology with senses of tactile and body ergonomics. Through the opening of windows and framing of views toward vista, the façade design blends traditional style with modern rhetoric, moderating environmental and experiential performances of window panels between indoors and outdoors through the thickness of earth-wall: translucent and transparent, inward and outward, push and pull, angle and direction.

Adopting steel purlin-frame with timber rafters and tiles, the architecture of the Pingtian courtyard houses and pavilions explores the integration of modern aesthetics with traditional techniques through the incorporation of contemporary building materials. By using steel and glass panels for corner opening in traditional construction of rammed earth wall, the design combines vernacular syntax with modern function and sensitivity in the regional context.

Village as Hotel

Rebuilding community

The remaking of village houses in Pingtian not only brings together the tectonic of rammed earth and timber with steels and glasses, but also the Rebuilding up of a platform through consensus for designing and building process among villagers and owners, modern architects with traditional carpenters and masons. The construction not only becomes traces of engaging nature through building, but also regenerates a process of making village’s public spaces: the tradition of shaping shared narrative spaces by the community. The reconstruction explores architectural tectonics and typology as well as testing functional and site potentials: leisure and services, enclosure and open, stone and tile, soil and woods, contour and datum, mountains and water.

Most importantly, the Village as Hotel was not built based on one master plan blueprint, but step by step and one after another, by identifying catalysts and seeking opportunities to transform, evolve and transform. The shaping of village hotel is also a process of rebuilding the community with an understanding of its economy and ecology, through the conservation of its architectural and social fabric shared by entrepreneurs and the local government, architects and carpenters, as well as visitors and villagers.

Village II: Jieshou

Shaping village public spaces

Jieshou is a typical agriculture village that rests itself on the north side of Songyin Creek. Jieshou means “the first on the boundary”, for it was the first village that the ancient post road hit in Songyang area. Historically, due to its fertile soil, successful agricultural production and strategic geographical location, Jieshou has been an affluent village in the surroundings of Songyang Plain. With the development of trade activities, a prosperous commercial street has evolved along the Songyin Creek since Ming and Qing dynasties, with the memorial archways along the streets as well as the significant public buildings.

Starting from the reconstruction of Village-Hall as catalyst, the design kicks off a series of projects in restoring and reactivating public buildings and open spaces along the historical street in Jieshou, Songyang, including Plaza of Village-Hall, Relic-site of Water-God Temple, Village Family Shrine, and Village School. While the new Village-Hall opens up an urban cross-section connecting the historical temple to the waterfront, the renovation of signature Courtyard Houses including Zhuo-Lu, Juyi-Tang and Minggaoshao-Fu, also opens up private courtyards to public streets and patios, linking village spaces into fabric, extending them to the surrounding nature of mountains and fields. Connecting points by points into lines and networks, the rural strategy of acupuncture by Wang Weijen Architecture intends to bring architecture together with community and social spaces, integrating production and culture tourism with daily life in village.    


Rebuilding the Village Hall

Typological transformation of an urban-section

Through preserving and renovating the historic buildings built in the end of Cultural Revolution, this design project reconstructs the symbolic relationships among Water-God Temple, theatre stage, and Songyin Creek left from the past. Apart from restoring the original large span timber-truss village grand hall, the design also opens the architectural façades in the front and back of the grand hall. This project introduces transparent modern materials into an ancient village, connecting the traditional longitudinal settlements with the transverse mountain-view and the waterfront, transforming spaces at the grand hall into a new urban section. With the back façade of the village hall setting back for making the grand porch, the spatial experiences are turned around: a new corridor is formed in front of the back façade, representing the connections between plaza and the surrounding landscape. The design also gives prominence to the double-sidedness of the display windows by means of widening the bricks on the two sides of the wall, thus strengthening the architecture’s potentials of spatial narration. The new village hall, not only intends to become a public space for villagers’ daily activities and tourists’ cultural experiences, but also expecting to stitching architectures and collective memories from different historical periods.

Restoring the Courtyard Hotel

Preservation and innovation with

Juji-Hall, Minggaoshao-Fu, and Zhuo-Lu Mansion are all typical two-story two-jin courtyard house owned by Songyang gentry families, with grey tiles, white walls, exquisite pavilion with delicate wood carvings. Particularly in Juyi-Hall, it also exhibits paintings by an old gentleman named Liu Weichao, which narrate the history and cultural geography of Jieshou.

Zhuo-Lu, an early modern two-story courtyard house with its unique spatial forms, was identified as epitomizing a successful home stay hotel in driving cultural tourism in the village. Built by village gentry Liu Deyuan, the founder of Zhendong Women’s School, Zhao-Lu was depicted in great details in the remained anthology named Chixicuncao about the perceptions of environment and contemplation of construction techniques in the process of design decision made for building traditional literati houses.

Delivered in a clear architectural style, the use of space in  Zhuo-Lu demonstrates a linear typology of a two story courtyard house, resonating with corridors on which residents could enjoy surrounding mountain views. The renovated B&B hotel keeps a rectangular courtyard with its distinctive characters, and introduces a mirror-like water pond in the middle of the courtyard. Penetrating through each room from the front door to back windows, linking lights and shadows in the front water-yard to the artificial landscape garden in the backyard, that altogether creates a continuous spatial experience for a modern classical Chinese room. At the same time, the light-well of the foyer entrance, the reflection of lights through water in the courtyard, as well as trees and corridors outside the courtyard, transform Zhuo-Lu and its courtyards into a significant place as well as semi-public spaces in the village.

Rebuilding the Village Core

Reconnecting temple, plaza,
street and waterfront

Yuwang Water-God Temple faces the Songyin Creek in the south, forming the historical core of Jieshou village together with the theatre stage across the street.  Daily life activities, folklores and festival rituals of the villagers have shaped the collective memories of the village. In the process of reshaping public and communal spaces of Jieshou through history, the design team also investigates the ruins of Yuwang Temple dilapidated for years after the devastating fire in the 80’s. Through surveying and mapping the ruins of columns, plinth, platforms, and foundations, with collected folk paintings and oral histories, the architect reconstructed the form and spaces of the historical temple with drawings, hoping to signify the ruin space for provoking villagers’ and visitors’ imaginations about culture. Working with the local herb-medicine institute, the architect is also restoring the wing rooms of the temple into a mini-museum of Traditional Medicine, showcasing the production and culture of the new Jieshou village.

By gradually restoring nearby buildings including the historical Zhendong Village School, Juyi-Hall, and Liu Family Shrine, the design team renewed public facilities inside the settlement fabric, step by step, by transforming the introverted courtyard and dilapidated village halls into public spaces. While the new Village-Hall opens up an urban cross-section connecting the historical temple to the waterfront, the renovation of signature Courtyard Houses like Zhuo-Lu, also turns private courtyards into semi-public patios, linking village spaces into fabric, extending to the surrounding nature.

Enlarge Photo: Rebuilding Courtyard Houses and Public Spaces 1