Art of the Chinese Courtyard: Respectful Renovations Keep Hutongs Alive

Building booms around the world can render entire neighborhoods
unrecognizable in a matter of days, demolishing historic
structures to make way for new developments. In cities like
Beijing, where older architecture such as “siheyuan”
courtyard houses
stand out for their uniqueness and beauty,
the transition from traditional to contemporary can feel all
the more jarring. Urban development is all but inevitable to
manage growing populations, but for many onlookers, it’s sad to
see the past bulldozed in favor of new buildings that don’t
even acknowledge the area’s cultural and architectural legacy.

Many of Beijing’s older buildings
fell in a frenzy of demolition
throughout the 1990s and
early 2000s. Traditional “hutongs,” or ancient city alleys
lined with siheyuan residences, had fallen into disrepair and
often lacked basic services and sanitation. City planners
reportedly saw the historic, hutong-filled core of the city
surrounding Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City as prime
real estate. In the ‘90s,
about 600 hutong were destroyed every year
, displacing
roughly 500,000 residents. In place of those neighborhoods
built during the Ming Dynasty came glittering skyscrapers and
eight-lane highways.

Yandai_Byway

Designing homes around courtyards is an ancient tradition in
China, with evidence of
walled-in yards
going as far back as the Shang Dynasty
(approx. 1700 – 1100 BCE). The houses themselves opened out
onto the alleyways outside, creating tranquil and private
outdoor spaces protected from the eyes of strangers. This
layout is similar to that of Beijing itself, which began as a
walled city arranged like a checkerboard according to Confucian
code. Each courtyard contained at least two trees along with
water features and caged birds. Originally, each siheyuan was
occupied by a single (often wealthy) family, but over time,
they came to be inhabited by groups of families forming their
own tiny villages. Many have since been converted into
businesses.

Transforming Formerly Hidden Courtyards into Inclusive Spaces

Dwelling in Hutong by MINOR
Lab

Only a few hundred complete courtyard houses remain, down from
the 3,000 that stood during the 1980s. But among those that
still exist, an interesting trend is taking root: modernization
projects that preserve and honor the historic structures while
making them suitable for 21st century lifestyles. The best
examples of respectful Chinese courtyard house renovations
repair and maintain the existing elements of the siheyuan, keep
the courtyards open to the outdoors and add new complementary
elements that augment the usefulness of the original buildings
without diminishing their character.

Dwelling in Hutong by MINOR
LabDwelling in Hutong by MINOR
Lab

The walls of a hutong “can be seen as a boundary between public
and private venues,” acknowledges the firm MINOR Lab, which completed
this renovation in the Dongcheng District in 2017 updating an
old hutong with lots of transparent glass, translucent textured
acrylic panels for privacy and warm wood. But their project,
like many others, transforms these former residences into
spaces that are meant for community use.

“Within the walls remains an inward and enclosed space,
however, the yard resembles a vast container, letting in sky,
wind, sunlight, air and sound. The crows of the two grand
gingko trees are the flowing roof in the open air, overlapping
layers of grey tiles. The exterior space under the trees
connects to the interior one underneath the four roofs,
floating and exchanging in a continuous way.”

Hutong Renovation by
CAAHutong Renovation by
CAAHutong Renovation by CAA

An interesting project by the firm CAA explores the continuation of
multi-family and multi-generational hutong traditions in a way
that can help support the owner’s aging parents, who have
Alzheimer’s Disease. CAA kept the hutong’s original wooden
structure and added an additional steel roof, creating larger
windows and skylights in the existing structures to make them
brighter. The layout of the courtyard and the surrounding
houses gives each generation their own private living space,
but they’re connected to each other, and the flat, accessible
courtyard allows the client’s mother to get around in her
wheelchair.

Tea House in Hutong by
ARCHSTUDIOTea House in Hutong by
ARCHSTUDIOTea House in Hutong by
ARCHSTUDIO

“Tea House in Hutong” by ARCHSTUDIO is a striking
example of the bolder approach. Forced to demolish parts that
were too unsafe to keep, the architects added new wood and
metal structures and created more enclosed spaces protected
from the elements by adding a white-painted concrete roof.
Openings to the outdoors are glassed in like atriums, and you
can still get a sense of the original space as you gaze across
the courtyard despite all of these alterations.

Twisting Courtyard by
ARCHSTUDIOTwisting Courtyard by
ARCHSTUDIOTwisting Courtyard by
ARCHSTUDIO

The same firm took an old siheyuan in Beijing’s Dashilar Area
and transformed it into a public space with a dramatic,
river-like undulating surface of grey brick that flows in and
out of the interior and exterior spaces. Curved walls hide
auxiliary spaces like the kitchen, bathrooms, private guest
rooms and storage areas while visually connecting communal
spaces like the dining room and reception to the courtyard.
It’s not subtle by any means and it doesn’t shy away from
ultramodern touches, but somehow the combination of old and new
still feels cohesive.

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