courtyard house


  • Wachtel On The Arts: The Beijing Building Boom
  • Eleanor Wachtel returns from a trip to Beijing,
  • where she witnessed the biggest contemporary building boom in the world.
  • In the lead up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games,
  • Beijing is awash in construction cranes, as Chinese and foreign architects prepare the city for the influx of athletes and tourists.
  • Architect Yung Ho Chang tells us what he thinks of foreign "starchitects" creating flashy buildings in China in the run-up to the Olympics.

Yung Ho Chang - The Split House

The Importance of the Antichamber

  • and much like a chinese house, when you enter, you are in a transitional zone,
  • there is a 'screen wall' where you can look straight into the house/courtyard but is given a sense that there is something beyond.
  • even the concrete floor slabs of the 2 halves can be seen from the glass floor of the joining element

higher North Walls

  • a siheyuan is a practically sound, engineered structure.
  • Northwestern walls are usually higher than the other walls
  • this is to protect the inside buildings from the harsh winds blowing across northern China in the winter.

Curved Eaves and warmth retention

  • Eaves curve downward, so that rainwater will flow along the curve rather than dropping straight down.
  • The rooftop is ridged to provide shade in the summer while retaining warmth in the winter.

building posistioning

  • The four buildings of a siheyuan are normally positioned along the north-south and east-west axes.
  • The building positioned to the north and facing the south is considered the main house (正房).
  • The buildings adjoining the main house and facing east and west are called side houses (厢房).
  • The northern, eastern and western buildings are connected by beautifully decorated pathways (廊).
  • These passages serve as shelters from the sunshine during the day, and provide a cool place to appreciate the view of the courtyard at night.
  • The building that faces north is known as the opposite house (倒座房). Behind the northern building, there would often be a separate backside building (后罩房),
  • the only place where two-story buildings are allowed to be constructed for the traditional siheyuan.

Entrance Gate

  • The entrance gate is usually at the southeastern corner.
  • Normally, there is a screen wall (Chinese: 影壁; pinyin: yǐng bì) inside the gate, for privacy; superstition holds that it also protects the house from evil spirits.
  • All of the rooms around the courtyard have large windows facing onto the yard and small windows high up on the back wall facing out onto the street.
  • The layout of a simple courtyard represents traditional Chinese morality and Confucian ethics.
  • In Beijing, four buildings in a single courtyard receive different amounts of sunlight.
  • The northern main building receives the most, thus serving as the living room and bedroom of the owner or head of the family.
  • The eastern and western side buildings receive less, and serve as the rooms for children or less important members of the family.
  • The southern building receives the least sunlight, and usually functions as a reception room and the servants' dwelling, or where the family would gather to relax, eat or study.
  • The backside building is for unmarried daughters


  • china is experiencing the greatest mass migration in history
  • the skyline forested with construction cranes


  • don't take your children's education too seriously - let the have a good time and give them some freedom
  • in order to raise a good generalist they must be poor student
  • humility - working in the city and cleaning the bathrooms was not so bad in comparison
  • the cultural revolution

houtongs: the importance of little pieces of sky

  • little pieces of sky right in the center of the city
  • degenerate into alleyways - not courtyards


  • I couldn't paint very well at all
  • humble character - did you like it…not at first
  • my first impressions were very much mixed
  • the competition was tough during the cultural revolution because music and art were one of the few things you could practice at home

**the big nature of California in contrast with the little nature of the courtyard house

China vs. North American

  • North American culture is puritanical
  • in China we are not hedonistic like the europeans
  • China is not religious or ideological
  • never have the people been ideological
  • the government is ideological
  • In America government is a reflection of the peoples ideology
  • so every culture has an ideology it just depends where the root is…
  • does it stop with government or is it superimposed on or displaced to society to fill a gap
  • in China the government stance is not a reflection of what people think
  • puritanism is different for me and difficult for me to deal with

Freedom vs. democracy

  • freedom democracy and liberty in north america are synonyms
  • in China they are all different things
  • freedom -to think and act - too much freedom in china - people don't care for community because they are preoccupied with indiividual freedom
  • liberty - self richeousness, with us or against us, i am certain that I am right vs. negotiation and give and take,
  • democracy - the voting system that is all

we have a moral problem - oftentimes here the ethical bottom line is not clear


  • Censorship - is commensurate with the power of the medium
  • for example with television there is strike control over this powerful tool
  • for books there is virtually no control

Candour thrives when public and private spheres are distinct

  • One unintended consequence of this clear distinction between a public sphere and private sphere is unbridled individual freedom to speak ones mind in platforms unthinkable in the western world
  • the example of the Beijing City Councilor lamenting in a session of council "I just don't get it, why can't we let Taiwan go independent"
  • public or rather publicized expressions of commemoration of tianammen square for example are not the only way to freely commemorate the anniversary
  • political correctness is well defined
  • I have to watch what I say because someone


  • formally expressive sculptural figural buildings
  • the opposite is basic urban fabric architecture - peasant architecture
  • everyday life architecture
  • the Khan camp: let a building be what it wants to be - Mosha Safdi

Little Citizens

  • urban concept of shanghai -
  • urban dweller - little citizen
  • beijing is more a big intellectual town
  • people care about daily life more so than big ideas
  • everyday urban life
  • the pleasure of shopping, going to a park and meeting friends
  • architecture is the backdrop of all these moments
  • the opera house should not be closed during the day
  • anti monument architecture


  • what do you think of the results - mixed, some are good, some are okay, some are not
  • no one really listen to them, yeah they were largely ignored

Courtyard Houses

  • courtyard houses only make sense with low density
  • a little piece of sky in a highrise? -
  • a livable outdoor space surrounded by rooms with a deep balcony big enough for a table
  • an outdoor component to daily life

Consumption and Capitalism

  • in China everything is consumed
  • How can China appreciate Avant Garde?
  • you have to accept the market economy to some degree to practice your trade
  • but just enough to do that

Peasant Architects

  • peasants and lay people
  • they usually want to build buildings on their own
  • so we need to start making architectural best practices available

Low impact: Buildings are Not Forever

  • the average lifespan of a building in China is 25 years
  • if I can leave less debris when the house is done that is beneficial to the environment and the city
  • earth and wood can deteriorate and disintegrate

Courtyard House an example of an Exemplar

  • the courtyard house should be the prototype or exemplar for residential
  • but the setting is too urban with too high a density it would not fit
  • so the idea is enclose a space a green space anyway you can make a V shaped house closed off by the hillside
  • a prototype for the outskirts of beijing
  • what is needed is a 21 century equivilant of the courtyard house

roby house: too context specific

  • frank loyd wright designed it specifically for the roby family
  • the wife could look into a sunken garden and see children playing
  • the roby family didn't stay their very long
  • Who did frank loyd wright really design the house for?
  • It is not a fair question but you get the point
  • But when you do a very good piece of architecture, although momentarily it is for a family, only when it is really good is it for humanity
  • the tension between context appropriateness and universality is a tough act to balance

Developers evil Developers

  • most buildings we see today are problematic
  • in the US 90% of buildings are not designed by architects
  • up to 70 and 80% of buildings are designed by architects in China
  • put up by drafting and marketing departments and pushed through by developers

Peasant Architects

  • peasants lack access to architecture knowledge
  • all an architect needs to do from time to time is work out those few centimeters to make an apartment a little more comfortable more livable
  • an architect doesn't need to make any grand artistic statements it is to really practically solve little problems that make people appreciate their dwellings that much more
  • that tradition has been to a large degree lost

**Developers Evil Developers*

  • developers sell images not substance
  • the rich pay huge sums and don't get what hey deserve because the buildings are not well designed
  • branding, selling fashion, starchitects

Urban Planning

  • the basics for a city
  • decide on a density
  • then sort out public transportation
  • finally the government has realized that public transportation is not about making profit
  • the struggle of the individual to achieve material success?

Little Citizens: Urban Pleasure

  • finer, smaller, down to earth
  • ordinary folks
  • why care about how grand a theatre looks if you can only afford to go once a year

Humility: is it a good thing? - not necessarily

the earthquake

  • why did the school buildings collapse like mad and the government buildings stood standing
  • there were two kinds of building that were destroyed
  • peasant built and pre 1990 developments
  • the ethical bottom line emerges again
  • there was no special school for the contractors kids and the politicians children
  • the ignorance that said that we can skimp on the rebar

Peasant Architects

  • Lory Baker a British Architect in India
  • who comic book style tips

Ethical Bottom Line and Corruption

  • I promise i have a question
  • I want to share with you a anecdote i heard after the sechuan earthquake in which shoddy construction whipped out all the schools but left government buildings standing
  • A Chinese architect went on the CBC after the sechuan earthquake and said
  • I get livid when people say that there was a conspiracy of corruption that led to the collapse of schools while government buildings stood
  • he highlights the point
  • there were no special schools for the children of the contractors who skimped on the rebar or the government officials whose buildings survived
  • the buildings that fell were peasant built and pre 1990 developments
  • it was the inability to keep up with the learning curve of rapid growth that caused the collapse not corruption
  • I think this highlights the nuance of so called corruption in china
  • can you clarify what you think the role of corruption is for economic security.
  • this seems counter - intuitive
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License