Interiors Awards 2016: Restaurant

Photography by Wang Ning

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Teahouse in Hutong Restaurant
Designer: Arch Studio
Client: Beijing Shuimoxuan Cultural Development
Location: Beijing

“Like an oasis, this teahouse is magnificent and moving. The space is about restraint and purpose. We love how they enclosed the trees, bringing nature into the space to make it seem very calm and serene.”—Jury

The historic core of Beijing has changed more in the last 60 years than in the previous six centuries, but enclaves of courtyard houses (siheyuan) and narrow lanes (hutong) threaded between the high walls still exist. During the destructive years of Mao, most of the city’s fortifications were torn down, and broad avenues were driven through the ancient urban fabric—similar to what Baron Haussmann did in 19thcentury Paris. To accommodate a tide of new residents, courtyards were built over, and the poor were crowded into ramshackle structures. Now that the capital has become a vast metropolis, there’s a growing respect for historic buildings, in part because so many have been destroyed. The surviving siheyuan are being restored and upgraded to serve as commercial premises and costly residences.

Arch Studio, a Beijing firm founded by Han Wen-Qiang in 2010 with a special appreciation of the past, was commissioned to design the Hutong Teahouse as an interior that is reverent of history. “Old buildings are part of a city’s memory and have a unique aesthetic value,” Wen-Qiang says. “Instead of pulling them down, we should find ways of maintaining their value so that old and new coexist.”

Located in a quiet residential area of the old city, the teahouse demonstrates Arch Studio’s mastery. Cong Xiao, Zhao Yang, and Wen-Qiang shared responsibility on the landscaping, interior design, and architecture for the project.

The client, Beijing Shuimoxuan Cultural Development, which specializes in the sale of traditional calligraphy and art implements, asked Wen-Qiang to create four tearooms, a dining room, a kitchen, offices, and a reception desk within the five existing buildings. The challenge was to restore three older buildings while rebuilding two badly decayed structures from the 1980s, then weave them together to create a continuous flow of space.

From above, the five tiled roofs are clearly separate, but the rooms below are linked and open onto inner patios of white gravel, planted with bamboo and enclosed with curvilinear glass walls. Specialized artisans from Yi County in Hebei Province were employed to lay the dark clay bricks and roof tiles, using  time-honored techniques.

In the old buildings, stripped log columns support open pitched roofs, and the floors are paved with brick. In the rebuilt spaces, white self-leveling resin paint was used for the floors, which complement the white ceilings and walls. Screens of cedar slats add warmth, and the inner courtyards bring nature indoors.

Tea drinking is an established social ritual in China, and the five rooms allow groups of friends or families to gather in a convivial circle to enjoy a level of privacy that is unfamiliar in Western cafes. The same rooms are used for dinner and sometimes host exhibitions of traditional arts. The dining chairs are a local variation on Hans Wegener’s Wishbone chair, itself inspired by Ming Dynasty wooden armchairs.

This client shared the designer’s love of craft and was willing to wait for the job to be done right. As Wen-Qiang recalls, “It took three years to achieve a high level of design and construction. The site was too confined to do all [of] the work at once, and the limited budget required us to plan each step with great care. It was impossible to understand the complexity of [the] old buildings from drawings, so the designers had to be on-site to discuss construction methods with the workers and make timely adjustments.”

Xue Bing-Hua, the general manager of the teahouse, complimented Wen-Qiang, saying, “The designer combined old and new perfectly; fashion and tradition coexist here. The project creates a model for the renovation of Beijing hutongs.”