With Spring quickly approaching and a rare Beijing “blue sky day”, I recently found myself with a perfect opportunity to visit a local courtyard project in the city. I was invited by a friend Ian, an Old China Hand who also has an interest in Beijing’s culture and heritage, to visit a private courtyard in Banshang Hutong in the Xidan district.
Gary, Ian’s friend whose project this was, greeted us at the door. As we turned left into the siheyuan the first thing that struck me was the light. There was so much of it! All the timber elements – constructed from a pale wood – were left bare, which was so unexpected and out of character that it threw me off for a couple of seconds. Despite the initial surprise, it was easy to adjust to the simple, slightly Japanese-esque design. In particular, the light mustard shade of the wood contrasted beautifully with the darker grey bricks and tiles typically found in Beijing hutong architecture and made for an overall very pleasant feel.
The project we were visiting was completed a few years prior and now serves as a set of private meeting rooms. During the rebuilding, they also decided to add on an underground presentation room that can seat up to 25 people primarily for visual presentations.
The layout of the site is that of a typical Beijing courtyard. It is made up of four single-story, independent structures creating an enclosure around a stone courtyard. The entire complex is surrounded by a two meter high wall. In keeping with tradition, the main entrance and portcullis, raised a few steps above street level, are located at the eastern corner of the south wall.
Entering into the property you are immediately greeted by a yingbi, or screen wall which acts as a privacy barrier between the interior and the street and also plays an important role in the fengshui of the property. The only structure with a second floor was a small sitting room in the north-east corner facing south – a perfect place to catch some rays and relax whilst overlooking the neighbouring hutong roofs.
An Interview with the Head Architect
After exploring the courtyard we headed to one of the meeting rooms to chat about the project and enjoy some pu’er tea. After we sat down, Gary announced that he had also invited the head architect of the project, Mr Chai, to talk with us.
Mr Chai is a building restoration specialist with a vast amount of knowledge on the local architecture, culture and heritage of Old Beijing. He previously taught at Tsinghua University but currently works on restoring the buildings in the Forbidden City. An unassuming and friendly lao beijing ren or ‘Old Beijinger’, Mr Chai also works on courtyard projects in his spare time as an outlet for his passion for preserving the local architecture and culture surrounding his neighbourhood.
For the next hour, using my less-than-adequate Chinese and with the generous help of Ian and Gary as translators, we covered a range of topics on building restoration in China. Below are a few excerpts from our conversation.
On Beijing Courtyards and Hutongs
Me: “So this is a beautiful space, one of the first things you notice is the light colour of the wood, what type of wood is it? This is not a traditional look, is it?”
Mr Chai: “Exactly, the wood is Pine and we chose it specifically because of the light colour, giving the courtyard a very light feel. Normally these beams and columns would be much darker, decorated in red, green and blue paint, but that would have made the overall look much heavier.”
Me: “What was this site previously? Are there any pieces of the original building remaining?”
Mr Chai: “No, this is all new build. It was a courtyard before, but because it was poorly looked after and the majority of the structures were timber, much of it was rotten and unstable, so we had to demolish it.” Looking around he adds, “This is one of the key differences between traditional buildings in China compared with the West. Your old buildings are made of stone, so they are longer lasting, ours are made of wood.”
Me: “What happens when other courtyards are demolished? Can you not reclaim some of the materials, such as roof tiles?”
Mr Chai: “Unfortunately there is so much being demolished, but people just throw it all away as rubble. People here do not see the value of these materials. You could reclaim some roof tiles, but they are pretty hard to find, and then you need to have them fit with the new ones, it’s not an easy task. We used all new tiles, but imitated in the traditional style.”
Me: “This property was not under any protection then. What was the process like for applying to demolish and rebuild?”
Mr Chai: “No this property was not protected. There are two routes you need to go down when working with protected buildings. One is the Cultural Relics Bureau, the other is the Planning Bureau. We just had to work with the Planning Bureau and stick to some basic guidelines such as not exceeding the height of surrounding buildings, using similar materials and so on. The entire project was completed in a year, including demolition, excavating for the below ground meeting room, and all the paper work.”
Me: “You must have noticed a big change in these hutong areas, so much is being demolished.”
Mr Chai: “Yes, so much. It’s very sad. Before, when you would walk down these alley ways there used to be such a bustling atmosphere. People would sit outside talking, playing mahjong and you’d walk by your neighbour’s and they would call you in to eat some jiaozi [dumplings], it was so lively.” He looks on wistfully “Now you have these high-rise buildings, no-one talks to one another, you live on a floor with five other homes and just close your door to the outside.”
Me: “I hear that there is quite a divide now, with some people living in the hutongs wanting to move away to better, more modern amenities, whilst some still want to stay.”
Mr Chai: “That’s because where before a courtyard was designed for a family of four or five, nowadays many courtyards house several families. It is too expensive for the average family to own an entire courtyard. Now you can have a space like this (he indicates to our meeting room) with one family living in it. Would you want to live in those kinds of conditions? Look around, if you could fix up your courtyard and live in a space like this (he sweeps a hand around the courtyard) would you not want to live here?”
I was in whole-hearted agreement.
On Restoring the Forbidden City
Mr Chai: “Yes it is. There are several levels of protection classification in China; state, municipal, district and local. The Forbidden City is obviously under the highest level of protection. These regulations are very strict, they don’t allow just anyone to work there. You have to have had at least 5 years of working experience before you are even allowed to touch anything, let alone work on it.”
Me: “What about the restoration methods? What special techniques do you employ for restoring certain elements?”
Mr Chai: “We have many experts; for beams, tiles, paint and so on and they all use only traditional methods and materials to restore things. If a tile breaks, we replace just that one tile with one made in exactly the same way as during that period. For such important buildings we need to preserve as much of the original feel as possible, so we use reclaimed materials if we can. There are also very specific steps to take for replacing different elements.” He indicates to one of the pillars “If we want to replace a timber pillar first you have to wind string around it and cover it with a layer of linen. Then you pack clay on top of the linen and let it dry. The clay preserves the moisture in the timber, therefore prolonging the life of the wood. Finally you fix the clay and paint and decorate it.”
Me: “I’ve always been curious about the vibrant colours of places like the Forbidden City or Temple of Heaven. Everything always looks so new. Did the paint really used to be that bright or do you nowadays add some sort of preservatives that has altered the sheen?”
Mr Chai: “Actually the colours were always this bright. We also use the same type of paint that was always used, we don’t add anything to it.”
Me: “Can you tell me what you are woking on at the moment?”
Mr Chai: “We have been working on the Buddhist Hall at the west side of the Forbidden City. The temple was created for the Emperor’s wives and concubines to worship at. As they were not allowed out of the Forbidden City, they had very little to occupy their time, so they would worship a lot.”
On the Building Restoration Trend
Me: “Do you see an increased interest by the government for preserving China’s cultural relics?”
Mr Chai: “Yes, very much so. The government is putting a lot of money into preservation nowadays, they really are taking an interest. Unfortunately in Beijing they knocked down so much, like the city walls, but now at least they are trying to salvage some of that. Xizhimen [the original west gate of the city] for example had all the attached walls destroyed, but now they are storing all the timber components of the gate – the doors, joinery and decorations and so on – so that no further damage can come to them.”
Me: “What about more local places like the Dongsi area with all it’s regular hutongs? Is there more interest in protecting those?”
Mr Chai: “Areas like this seem to be protected more by private owners, like with this courtyard. More people are taking an interest in protecting their local heritage, and of course we have more foreigners who take an interest too.”
Me: “So there are a lot of private companies working on building restoration?”
Mr Chai: “Yes a lot. There are 14 private Chinese companies in the city who only work on building restoration, so the trend is certainly on the up.” He adds “When the Three Gorges Dam was being built the government spent a lot of money to move temples and other relics above the flood lines.”
Me: “I’ve recently been reading more about private collectors moving temples and traditional Chinese homes from villages in the south to large cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. What do you think of this trend? Do you view it as a form of preservation?”
Mr Chai: “Yes, I believe it counts as preservation and I think it’s a good thing. Sometimes the local government doesn’t have enough funds to save their relics, so these collectors can help save at least a few of these buildings.”
Although Mr Chai expressed his sadness for the fast-disappearing hutong architecture and culture, his overall outlook for China and the people’s changing attitude towards building restoration and preservation left me with a positive impression of the future. Thankfully there will always be experts and enthusiasts with a passion to protect their local neighbourhoods, and as for Mr Chai, it doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.
For more information on restored courtyards, check out the Red Capital review under our China Projects section. We also have more information on the Forbidden City restoration work as well as on building relocation.