Globalization and rapid urbanization promise better lives, but also, to some extent, widen the gap between rural and urban regions. We may say, rural China is in a terrible predicament of identity anxiety and cultural deficiencies. In this dual situation, how can architects do to “urbanize the countryside" sustainably, raise the status of rural areas, and inspire rural self-confidence?
We think the best solution to rural revitalization would never be building new houses over old ones, nor to mention undisciplined occupation of land. The most appropriate yet difficult way of Chinese rural construction is one that makes people feel at ease in the space without deliberate interference nor a imitation of the ancient, as described by a famous saying in Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: “ A great sound is inaudible,and a great image is formless.”
The property was the family mansion first built in 1898 by Zhou Ansheng, the grandfather of the client who tasked us for the project. However, it has been largely derelict for decades since the family members left hometown for better living in big cities. The return to pastoral life has long been an ideal of Chinese literary tradition and turned into 'xiangchou';-a term that refers to nostalgia for rural lands- especially for family like Zhou Ansheng.
The original building was a traditional Chinese courtyard dwelling — three-hall structure with two wings and four internal courtyards. Except for the characteristic Huizhou-style facade and roof which are well preserved, most of the other original features — the loam walls, wooden roof trusses, timber beams and columns, grey tiles are severely damaged. Under such condition, the building might seem to be of little value to some villagers, but for Zhou’s family, it is a century-old dream and memory. Also for us, it was just like an uncut jade to be carved into great works. When we first visit the site, the house was surrounded by weeds and shrubs, and blossomed red plum. Ancient villages in Zhejiang Province are always in some sort of inherent harmony with nature. Courtyards are spiritual place for Chinese ancient literati, and still a longing place for urbanite where they can be assured of being personally pampered in beautiful rural surroundings to get away from the hustle and bustle. Famous Chinese writer Lin Yutang, also best known is the West for his English writing once described his ideal home：“Garden within a house, house within a garden, courtyard among rooms, trees among courtyard, sky above trees, moon in sky”, reflecting the most distinctive feature of Chinese home design of all ages is the stone-paved courtyard, just similar in effect to a Spanish cloister, and symbolizing peace, quiet and repose.
Before getting down to the renovation work, we checked the status of the timber structure and walls, and decided on renovation methods for the most crucial parts, including the roof, the timber frame and the exterior walls. On the roof, only one layer of small black tiles were laid for rain proof, where lots of leakage points could be found. As a result, new timber roof boarding and waterproof membranes would be laid underneath the tiles. As for the main structure, the pillars and most main beams were severely damaged, so most of them need to be re-built.
We made it a priority to restore and repair the existing building, keep the original spatial layout, revive the sense of sophistication and stateliness that existed when the original property was first built, an ode to its past. As a result, the original structure of Huizhou-style façade and walls were revamped and reinforced by steel-concrete structure so as to eliminate air/wind leakage and potential structural risks. The severely damaged through type timber frame were rebuilt according the original structure. Some undamaged beams and stone plinths under the wooden pillars were kept intact, the demolished ones such as grey tiles are recycled for pavements and decoration, echoing the history to the house and the local culture on the tectonic side as well as showing sustainable ecological construction philosophy.
We are fortunate to work with timber structure engineers and excellent local craftsman, which are exceedingly difficult to find given the exodus of local labor from countryside to big cities for their living. The disadvantage of traditional courtyard dwelling layout is insufficient of light, thus a side wall of the lobby had to be replaced by glass screen walls to bring in light. The transparency also enhanced the connectivity between the indoor spaces and the open courtyard. Stepping into the lobby through the low robust rubble wall and a stone-paved courtyard embellished with two local red plum trees, the family-style setup is perfect for those who want quietude, away from the bustling city. The interiors consist of two ideas, simplicity and space. We brought in few pieces of furniture with simple lines, good quality and extremely polished, which perfectly fuse different hues and texture. Wooden grills and local limestone floor merged together to create a sense of warmth, naturalness. The new reflects the past without imitating it. The back hall connects the two floors and with an exquisite wooden stair and provides access and privacy for all the 14 rooms. The two courtyards divide the spatial patters and create various circulation route, providing a playful walking experience as well as impressive views.
Undoubtedly, this is a rural form that is expected by metropolitans. In the context of China's “beautiful villages” and “village rejuvenation”, Changxing, as one of the main positions for the revitalization of the rural areas in Zhejiang Province, has been formulated in various aspects such as strengthening capital investment, housing system reform, and rural human settlements. In the near future, we believe, lots of characterful country house hotels would follow.
Yushe Design (YSD) is a Shanghai-based design firm with international vision, which provides integrated design of architecture, interior space and landscape. We believe strongly in research as a design tool, as each project bears its unique set of contextual issues. We search for the best solution of each project as architecture isn’t a work of utopia and arbitrary, but a result of multiple restrains. We begin with a rigorous study and analysis of each site’s specific composition: the obvious and the hidden, the natural and the social environment. We study each program and how people involved want to live, work, play. We analyze materials, lights, that are ecologically responsive to the site conditions, support each program and reflect the characteristic of the space and the sensibility of people live in. We seek to synthesize all this so the outcome appears obvious, inevitable.