A short walk down a ramshackle alley typical of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods leads to a pivoting steel door deeply recessed between a pair of gray-brick buildings. Go through it and you are immediately swept away from the noise and frantic pace of the big city. A sleek glass corridor connects a trio of the tiny courtyards that comprise hutongs and a set of one-story structures, three of which are new and two that have been restored. Old and new, indoors and out fuse seamlessly. What had once been a crumbling courtyard residence now serves as a teahouse and retreat for the owner, a dealer of painting and calligraphy. The way the design resolves opposing elements says much about the work of Han Wen Qiang, who founded Arch Studio in Beijing in 2010. “What I want to do is find the wisdom of Chinese tradition and convert it to the construction of contemporary space that responds to the needs of today’s society,” says Han.
Born in Dalian, a coastal city about 300 miles east of Beijing, Han studied architecture at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, where he now teaches. As a student at CAFA, one of the top arts schools in China, he was drawn to architecture because it could “influence or even change people’s lives,” he says.
Since founding the studio, he has executed a series of striking renovations that create bold juxtapositions between old and new. In doing so, he finds a way of anchoring the modern in China’s cultural heritage—using proportions and spatial strategies that obey the old rules. At the teahouse, for example, the new buildings occupy the same footprints as previous structures on the site and the glass corridor serves as a modern extension of the courtyards it helps define. For the Rongbaozhai Coffee Bookstore, also in Beijing, Han preserved the pseudo–Classical Chinese facade from the 1980s in a sly nod to recent history, while inserting an elegant, almost Zen-like, interior where glass walls promote transparency and a coffee bar/cashier in the center of the main floor helps bring the bookstore into the 21st century. A skylit courtyard in the back of the store and planters set within slender iron bookshelves connect visitors to nature, an ancient theme in Chinese architecture. Like that found in traditional Chinese gardens, the nature here is “artificial,” carefully orchestrated to focus attention on particular views and to recall famous poems and paintings.
Han has worked on a number of projects for cultural organizations, transforming existing buildings into modern spaces for art. Not far from the bookstore, he took another traditional Chinese structure and created a sleek home for the Rongbaozhai Western Art Gallery. Using wood-slatted screens, a glass-enclosed stair, and cool white surfaces, he ensconces visitors in a cocoon of soothing materials and light. “I want my architecture to be slow-paced and friendly,” says Han, “and to create a harmony with nature and history.” He has also designed projects for the Lelege Art Space, a gallery in Beijing, and the Great Wall Museum of Fine Art, an old industrial building in Shandong Province he adapted for cultural uses. He is currently working on an organic-food factory and a waterfront teahouse, both in a rural part of Hebei Province.
Asked about his approach to history, Han says, “Architecture is like a man—it has a past and a future. When I renovate a building, I think it should reflect traces of time, because that is part of its story and shouldn’t be erased. New and old should be able to coexist and communicate with each other.”
DESIGN STAFF: Varies between 7 and 10
PRINCIPAL: Han Wen Qiang
EDUCATION: China Central Academy of Fine Arts, M.F.A, 2005; China Central Academy of Fine Arts, B.F.A., 2002
WORK HISTORY: Zhong Mei Han Mo Design, 2005–09
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Rongbaozhai Coffee Bookstore, Beijing, 2015; Teahouse in Hutong, Beijing, 2015; Great Wall Art Museum, Zi Bo City, 2015; Renovation of Xinsi Hutong House, Beijing, 2014; Lelege Art Space, Beijing, 2014; Rongbaozhai Western Art Gallery, Beijing, 2013; Courtyard House, Beijing, 2010
Key Current PROJECTS: Villa in Hai Tang Gong She, Beijing, 2016; Organic Farm, Tangshan City, Hebei Province, 2016; Poly Music World, Beijing, 2016