Imagine a two-storey house, with its four rooftop corners lifted up. More light is let in; the height of interior space becomes indefinite – some rooms are two storeys high, some one and a half, and some close to the top ceiling are only half storey high, and these spaces naturally transform into a living room, an art studio, a loggia, or an attic…
The roof, defined by four curves, transforms into a patio featuring a double-curved structure, just like a courtyard opening up towards the sky. People can get together here on a clear summer night to enjoy the bright moon and the cool; on a wet day, this is also where rain gathers and gets drained out of the house from four waterspouts.
This is an art studio located in Li'ao Xiaozu, Lukeng Village, Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province. Zhuzi, the owner, is a friend of mine who had been a ‘Beijing drifter’ for years before he continued ‘drifting’ to Shanghai and spent another few years there. Years of migration contributed to the idea of building an art studio in his hometown – which would allow him to spend some time of the year at home producing art works, provide his parents with a new home and accommodate his two sisters and their families when the family reunites.
Lukeng Village is where Zhuzi was born and grew up. It is in a mountainous area that is not easily accessible. Like many other Chinese mountain villages, Lukeng has a unique surrounding. The art studio is situated in Li’ao Xiaozu among dozens of other houses, most of which back onto the mountain and face the farmland. Currently the typical dwellings there are two-storey houses with a linear layout that were built before 2000. In the centre of the Xiaozu lies an uninhabited traditional courtyard house. There are also new style houses built after the millennium year featuring ceramic tiled exterior walls. These small buildings representing three different periods are a record of the village’s development.
If Zhuzi hadn’t had the idea of building an art studio back home, the village would have kept evolving, with new houses gradually replacing those from the last century; or the village would have started to wither as the population is declining. Hence, the emergency of this art studio was a beautiful surprise in the village’s evolution. We hope to ripple the peaceful lake of the village’s history.
At the beginning we had few preconceived ideas regarding whether to have the house blend in the village’s environment or to insert an abrupt, alien object into it. But since Zhuzi’s parents will be the permanent residents, ruling out the ‘alien object’ option; on the other hand, the existence of an art studio in a rural area making it impossible to truly blend in.
From the initial brainstorming to our finalised proposal, we imagined many possibilities. Our idea started from a collage of the local architectural language, the form of the studio, and requirements for daily living and creating art works, and ended up an intriguing model with clear boundaries that has dissolved the concrete impressions of the village and weakened the sense of collage – just the same as how an artist works: they need to have their perception fully loaded with stimulations from everything and begin their work in great passion, but the fruit should be pure, definite, and clearly-bounded.
From the way we saw it, Zhuzi’s decision to build his studio in his hometown was romantic, so we gave the building a romantic roof to cover and connect the ordinariness of daily life and the uniqueness of art practice.
Compared with the sizes of bedrooms, the size of common space is more valuable to Zhuzi. He showed me a reference photo of a modern western style building in Wukang Rd, Shanghai, which was the official residence of the Italian consul general in the 1930s. Zhuzi passed by the building when he commuted to work and was fascinated by its characteristic loggias, so he hoped that his new house would have a more spacious loggia wider than that of normal rural houses, enabling the family to enjoy the cool or socialise with neighbours.
Currently there are only ten permanent residents in Li’ao Xiaozu as all young adults are ‘drifting’ to larger towns or cities. For seniors and young children staying here, a common area for communicating is important. In Zhuzi’s case, family reunions are rare and precious, so the space for all outweighs spaces for one.
We therefore designed a sequence of common spaces starting from a loggia connected with the two storeys high living room, which then joins the studio that extends to an attic, the first-floor loggia, and the roof top, forming a continuous common space system.
Living areas have been squeezed into six smaller rooms and some other auxiliary rooms. Inside the clearly defined shell folds this continuous sequence of common spaces that leads to six distinct small rooms, forming a tiny, airy world hidden under the roof.
The construction seemed novel to local villagers, and it was difficult. The construction labours were from an adjacent village, and the team was led by an elderly man and a young lad. The senior builder was experienced and demonstrated craftsmanship while the junior could read the drawings and was a good communicator. Zhuzi’s farther took the role of project manager and laid his hands on some construction jobs. Their efforts were crucial to the completion of this project, especially when the budget was tight.
To make it easier for builders to fully understand the design in a straightforward way, we provided a 3D-printed model on top of technical drawings on the site. Constructing the rooftop, especially when it came to placing formwork and pouring concrete, was apparently the trickiest part. Unsurprisingly, these builders, who only had had experience in constructing flat or sloped roofs, found it challenging to manage the extra dozens of alignments brought about by the double-curved roof.
We certainly adjusted the design as feedbacks to all the limitations on site. For example, at first we projected the roof top to a plan with grid lines and marked heights of different points of the rooftop that correspond to the crossing points on the grid, but after discussions with the builders, we decided to determine the heights according to the sizes of molds at hand, which facilitated the construction and cost less. For example, the north corner was expected to be higher in our initial design, but without a concrete mixer truck, it was impossible to transport concrete to that height by a manually operated trolley. Besides, the budget only allowed us to use wooden poles rather than steel ones to support the formwork, but the wooden poles were not long enough, nor strong enough when connected. With such issues entering the equation, we lowered the height of the north corner. It somewhat sacrificed the ideal higher-in-the-north-than-south characteristic of form but was a more holistic and practical move that was consistent with the conditions.
Our discussions and flexibility throughout the constructing process have led up to a little house that is novel while also has a special charm of the rustic ‘brutalism’. On the day the rooftop was cast, people from not only Lukeng but also neighbouring villages all came to help – as the job had to be finished in a day while there was no mixer truck. The scene that they worked as a team was quite touching and memorable.
When the construction was completed, Zhuzi started to make a series of lovely furniture in his new studio, ranging from beds, tables, stools, lights and tool shelves. He said the curves in the furniture echo the curves of the roof.
When the construction was completed, Zhuzi came up with a name for the house – ‘Fanqu Xiaozhu’, i.e. ‘a small house with a curving roof’, and composed a couplet for it, which can somewhat translate to ‘a reflection on common things results in new ideas; an art studio breathes life into an old village’. As an independent artist, Zhuzi seems abrupt in the village, and this couplet is just his interior monologue. For him, such abruptness is a different perspective of thinking, an approach of reflection; hence he hoped that the architect could give form to his abruptness and turn it into a positive power. As an architect, I see an abrupt house as intriguing because it opens up space for imagination in daily life.
When the construction was completed, Zhuzi’s family entertained relatives to dinner in the new house. The host set up eight tables, and the studio was temporarily used as a hall. At the moment, the atmosphere of a lively traditional new year was back.
When the construction was completed, Zhuzi, photographer Xia Zhi and I stayed in the new house for a couple of days to take some photos. Whenever we were up to a conversation, there was always a cozy spot for us to chill together – the loggia, the dining room, the studio, the living room, under the tree or up on the rooftop; and when we wanted to spend some time alone, we could also easily find some personal space, which was relaxing.
It was in the summer. The village was so peaceful and quiet that the only sounds noticeable were cicadas chirping, birds twittering, and breezes rustling through trees; time seemed to stretch and become very slow. Sometimes when I unwound and let my mind drift away, I felt as if I were in the peaceful countryside, and probably because of this house, at some other times it felt like I entered the summer in a fairy tale, where there were paddy fields, watermelons, the old and the young, local dogs wandering about, moon gates, Zhuzi’s paintings, curving roofs, swallows nesting under eaves, and the crescent…
Note：Xiaozu is an administrative division in China below Cun (village). Typically a Xiaozu is a small, self-led community.
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