With all of the mega-projects rising in Beijing and radically transforming the city’s skyline, architects and planners can easily forget that important change can happen on the small scale as well. Ma Yansong and his team at MAD kept this in mind when they developed a series of schemes for the capital city that were exhibited at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale. One of their ideas was to upgrade the often deteriorating hutong neighborhoods by inserting small “bubbles” that would provide modern services, such as sanitation and waste handling. By adding proper toilets and plumbing to the old courtyard houses in these neighborhoods, the architects would give new life to the hutong without having to move people out of their homes.

While there are no plans right now to establish a network of such bubbles, a private client recently built one while renovating a courtyard house. Wrapped in a mirrored metal skin, Hutong Bubble 32 at first appears to be “an alien creature,” admits Ma. “Yet at the same, it reflects the surrounding wood, brick, and greenery, The past and the future can thus co-exist in a finite, yet dream-like world,” he explains.

The bubble contains a toilet and a stair leading to a roof terrace on the renovated house. But it also functions as a visual and metaphorical link between different eras. The slippery  geometry  is thoroughly modern, as is the sleek, all-white bathroom, but it recalls a giant scholar’s rock that might have been pulled from the bottom of a river for use in a Song-dynasty garden 1,000 years ago. Positioned at one end of the house and rising above the roof, the bubble makes its presence known without overwhelming its neighbors. Its elusive, reflective form gives it a mysterious yet amusing character—strange but friendly.

Ma hopes that if other bubbles are inserted in Beijing’s dense urban fabric, they attract “new people, activities, and resources to reactivate entire neighborhoods,” he says. “They exist in symbiosis with the old housing.”