The winding, narrow alleys of Chinese traditional hutongs, lined with terracotta and brick buildings, are no easy place to insert modern architecture. Hutong Tea House, in one of Beijing’s most ancient neighbourhoods, skillfully weaves new interventions between old structures to create a series of timeless interiors.
The project is the work of Arch Studio, a local firm founded by Han Wenqiang in 2010. Wenqiang’s first move was to conduct a careful survey of the existing structures – a series of five traditional houses interspersed with steel buildings surrounding a 450-square-metre L-shaped courtyard.
Wood and bricks from the classical buildings clustered at the north end of the site suggested that they were erected before 1644, the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. The newer structures to the east and west were estimated to be only about 30 or 40 years old; their steel walls, as well as the older wooden structures to the south, were in a state of disrepair.
Wenqiang developed a strategy that would preserve the structures of historic value – repairing only the serious damage while preserving the original appearance – and use a light touch to weave new interventions among them. One of the renovation’s primary goals was to create new interior space comfortably sealed off from the elements. Wenqiang demolished the dilapidated walls on the east and west, replacing these sections with a new wooden structure under a high pitched roof.
Wenqiang’s other gestures are decidedly more modern. A new roof in sleek white wanders the path of the alley, adding a rooftop to an area that was once outdoors. This corridor is punctuated by several light wells of curving glass, planted with bamboo, that rise from floor to ceiling, offering glimpses of the tiled roofs and sky above. They impart a feeling of being simultaneously indoors and out, and connect past to present.
These partitions represent, in Wenqiang’s words, the “ages of time,” and are poised to frame the traditional architecture like photographs from the past. They perform functional roles as well, bringing light into an enclosed space, and turning an otherwise straight corridor into a winding passage. This creates a more meandering path between the public and private zones of the cafe, offering different views to the visitors who sit to enjoy a tea or read a book.