Micro-Yuan’er Children’s Library & Art Centre
A small-scale project that enriches bonds amongst communities and revives Hutong life. Micro-Yuan’er is a project by Zhang Ke’s ZAO standardarchitecture team to renovate a typical “Big-Messy Courtyard” of Cha’er Hutong #8 in Dashilar area. Micro-Yuan’er is a new type of organic renewal in Beijing old city by inserting a mini art space and a mini library.
located near a major mosque, is a typical da-za-yuan (big-messy-courtyard) once occupied by over a dozen families. The courtyard is about 300-400 years old and once housed a temple that was then turned into residences in the 1950s.
The architect tried to redesign, renovate and reuse the informal add-on structures instead of eliminating them. In doing so, the intent was to recognise the add-on structures as an important historical layer and as a critical embodiment of Beijing’s contemporary civil life in Hutongs that has so often been neglected. In symbiosis with the families who still live in the courtyard, a nine-square-metre children’s public library built of concrete was inserted underneath the pitched roof of an existing building.
Under a big Chinese Scholar tree that may be as old as the courtyard itself, one of the former kitchens was redesigned into a six-square-metre mini art space made from traditional bluish grey brick. On its exterior, a trail of brick stairs leads up to the roof, where children and parents can delve into the branches and foliage of the big tree.
A child may stop by after school, pick out a favourite book and read in his little niche before getting picked up by his parents. Or kids can climb up onto the roof, sit in the shade and engage in a conversation with elderly neighbours in a familiar but new space.
Over the past fifty or sixty years, each family built a small add-on kitchen in the courtyard. Almost all of them have been wiped out with the renovation practices of the past years. In redesigning, renovating and reusing the informal add-on structures instead of eliminating them, it was intended to recognise them as an important historical layer and as a critical embodiment of Beijing’s contemporary civil life in Hutongs that has so often been neglected. In concert with the families, a nine-metre-square children’s library built of plywood was inserted underneath the pitched roof of an existing building. Under a big Chinese scholar tree, one of the former kitchens was redesigned into a six-metre-square miniature art space made from traditional bluish-grey brick. Through this small-scale intervention in the courtyard, bonds between communities have been strengthened and the Hutong life of local residents enriched.
The hutongs of Beijing are fast disappearing. The residential compounds, with their layering of spaces and multiple courtyards, are often viewed as messy and insalubrious – almost as slums. If they find a place in the modern city, it is often in sanitised form, as a tourist attraction, filled with boutiques. The attempt to find a new use for this traditional building form – one that would benefit the local community – motivated this proposal for a space that would serve both the pupils from the nearby primary school and the hutong’s remaining, mostly elderly, residents. Besides a children’s library and exhibition space, the centre hosts a local handicrafts studio and classes in painting and dance.
Key to the design was the renovation and reuse of existing elements in the courtyard, which included informal add-on structures, such as kitchens. The massing follows the conditions found at the site, and the height of the boxes is dictated by the height of the roof around them. Gathering together all the masses and activities is a giant scholar tree, perhaps 600 years old – as old as the courtyard itself.
The redesigned buildings in the centre of the courtyard have a lightweight steel structure and a ‘floating’ foundation – hollow steel beams simply laid on the ground – to protect the roots of the tree. The materials – chosen to blend with the urban surroundings – are principally grey bricks, both new and recycled, and, for the library, concrete mixed with Chinese ink – an innovation tested here for the first time.
Inside the library, windows frame unusual views out into the courtyard and follow the interior functions – as, for example, in the glazed reading nook that children reach by climbing some steps. The adaptable furniture – seating that can become an ad-hoc table or a ‘secret cave’, say – accommodates the spontaneity of childhood.
On the outside, the insertion of an outdoor staircase alongside each structure creates viewing platforms amid the tree’s branches where the users of the courtyard – children and adults alike – can survey the neighbourhood and enjoy a breath of rare, chlorophyll-laced air.
“The Micro Yuan’er Children’s Library and Art Centre is an exemplary representative of the modification and adaptive re-use of a historic building. In Beijing, as in other places, a growing number of hutongs are being restored. But this hutong is not a typical restoration project. By providing new structures and new public uses in the middle of the building’s courtyard, it entwines the private lives of the older inhabitants with the public use of a new children’s library and art centre.
The architectural strategy of this modest but highly articulate intervention is to use the existing buildings and landscape as the armature for the new construction. The use of a limited palette of materials, such as brick, wood and glass, helps the space of the courtyard to become denser through the addition of the new structures.” – Jury citation / Aga Khan Award
- The project is designed to be a communal children’s reading room and art centre, free and open to the neighbourhood. It is an open courtyard based on the existing city fabric. With a giant, six-hundred-yearsold typical Chinese scholar tree as the natural shading facility for the project courtyard, all the rooms of the project use natural ventilation. Due to the northern orientation of the site, roof openings and large facade openings are used for more natural lighting, and the interior artificial lighting consists of warm LED.
- Interior wise, glazing was positioned to reveal unusually framed vistas out into the courtyard, and follow the interior functions. For example, steps form an elevated reading nook in the library and are mimicked by a wide picture window, allowing children to climb up and look out as they flip through a volume or two. The spontaneity of childhood is captured in how interiors are elevated, allowing for seating to become ad hoc tables or benches to stretch out, creating multiple degrees of intimacy for children and parents together.
- On the outside, by inserting an outdoor staircase alongside each structure, the architect created viewing platforms to survey the neighbourhood while enjoying a breath of rare chlorophyll-laced air within the tree’s branches.
- The ground of the outdoor space is covered by the sand-based water filtering pavement to let the natural water circulation go on uninterruptedly. A special “floating” foundation is made to protect the old tree in the middle of the courtyard. The main materials of the project are traditional grey bricks, both new and recycled, and the special ink-concrete designed by the architect, to make the project blend delicately into the surroundings. The whole design maintains and improves the existing space composition, using the existing infrastructure system (e.g., electricity, water supply).
Cha’er Hutong (Hutong of tea) is a quiet spot among the busy Dashilar area, situated one kilometre from Tiananmen Square in the city center. No.8 Cha’er Hutong is a typical “Da-Za-Yuan” (big-messy-courtyard) once occupied by over a dozen families. Over the past five decades each family built a small add-on kitchen in the courtyard. These add-on structures form a special density that is usually considered as urban scrap and almost all of them have been automatically wiped out with the renovation practices of the past years.
In this project the architects tried to redesign, renovate and reuse the informal add-on structures instead of eliminating them. In doing so, they intend to recognize the add-on structures as an important historical layer and as a critical embodiment of Beijing’s contemporary civil life in hutongs that has so often been overlooked.
In symbiosis with the families who still live in the courtyard, a nine-square-meter children’s library built of plywood was inserted underneath the pitched roof of an existing building. Under a big ash tree, one of the former kitchens was redesigned into a six-square-meter mini art space made from traditional bluish grey brick. On its exterior, a trail of brick stairs leads up to the roof, where one may delve into the branches and foliage of the ash tree. With the small-scale intervention in the Cha’er Hutong courtyard, the architects try to strengthen bonds between communities, as well as to enrich the hutong life of local residents. A child may stop by after school, pick out a favourite book, and read in his little niche before getting picked up by the parents. Or the kids may climb up onto the roof, sit in the shade, and engage in a cosy conversation with the elderly in a familiar but new space.
Project name: Micro-Yuan’er
Location: Cha’er Hutong #8, Xicheng, Beijing, China, 100031
Coordinates: 39.895075, 116.384481
Type: Library, Art center / Gallery
Site area: 350 sqm
Built area: 190 sqm
Design Period: Septmeber 2012-December 2014
Construction Period: March 2014-December 2015
Cost: 105,000 USD
Client / Owner / Developer: Beijing Dashilar – Liulichang Cultural Development Ltd. / Jia Rong – Director in charge
- ZAO standardarchitecture – Beijing, China
Design Architect: Zhang Ke
Project Architects: Zhang Ke, Zhang Mingming, Fang Shujun
- Ao Ikegami, Huang Tanyu, Dai Haifei, Zhao Sheng, Liu Xinghua
Contractor : Liu Shanjie / Wang Changjun, Wang Zhanjun
Text Description: © Courtesy of ZAO standardarchitecture, Aga Khan Award
Images: © ZAO standardarchitecture, Zhang Mingming, Su Shengliang, Wang Ziling, Huang Tanyu