China is one of the fastest developing countries in the world. The rapid urbanisation has brought about a significant change in the cities and landscape of the country. Amid the transformation of the cities, urban sprawl and people moving into the cities from rural areas are on a rise too. While this happens, the villages of China, rich in culture, history and natural wealth, slowly cease to exist with its decreasing population. However, this pattern of urban inflow that seems to drain the rural villages isn’t exclusive to China but to most developing countries. In response to this, the Chinese village of Beigou, in Huairou district outside Beijing, went through an experimental environmental enhancement. The village at the foot of the Great Wall at Mutianyu with a population of only 100 households launched programmes to revitalise the village and enhance its thriving cultural heritage. The old abandoned industrial buildings were revamped and used for other purposes. The introduction of new typologies in the village opened a wider niche for tourism. Following this, more activities, functions and spaces that support the hospitality industry opened in the village, all the while prioritising the cultural heritage and identity of the context. For the villagers who were keen on the newfangled character of the village that came with boom in tourism, this initiative gave them the opportunity to develop a new sense of place. The inhabitants found means of generating income from the developing tourism bubble of the village, thereby encouraging the new changes in the village. Adding to the list of Chinese architecture studio llLab.’s interventions in Beigou, including San Sa Village and WAAAM, is the Brickyard Retreat’s renovation.
Decades back, an independent tile firing workshop, known as the glazed tile factory was decommissioned due to decreased market demand. Years later, in 2010, the vacant tile factory was given a new life in the name of ‘Brickyard Retreat’. Under the ownership of local villagers who love architecture and Chinese culture, the factory building took on the new role of hospitality. In 2018, the Brickyard Retreat became one of the first Chinese rural heritage hotels jointly selected by the State Administration of cultural relics of China and the China Association for the protection of ancient sites. While being the only heritage hotel in Beijing to be bestowed the title so far, Brickyard Retreat was acquired by 2049 Investment Group in 2020 and llLab. took up the new transition of the building.
In the 5335 sqm site, the level of intervention varied between the south courtyard and the north courtyard areas. The programs of the hotel including the reception area and small gathering spaces are arranged in the main buildings near the south courtyard. Resting where the original tile burning kiln used to be, these buildings behold the characteristics of traditional Chinese architecture along with glimpses of contemporary design. The architectural interventions took into consideration the existing brick architecture of the building and added layers to it that complement the old. Embracing the architectural and historical importance of its features, the intervention was limited to changes in roofing material, interior upgradation and necessary renovation.
Creating a new niche for experiences and a different architectural language, the north courtyard adorns new construction and landscape design, thereby extending the outdoors of the hotel. Envisioning a quiet space that overlooks Mutianyu Great Wall, the new construction presents itself inside the curious curves of local red brick walls. Accommodating an organic pool design in these curved volumes, the new spaces form a subtle introduction of contemporary architecture in the historic setting of the village and the hotel. However, between the various levels and modes of intervention in the site and building, the architects haven’t compromised on the cultural significance of the structure and the dialogue it creates with nature and landscape.
Through the three architectural elements, the Chinese architects aimed to reflect the cultural heritage of the factory, the architectural history of the space and the local culture of the village. The glazed tile, old kiln and red brick become the trio of elements in this manifestation. While respecting the site and the history of the site, these elements navigate the functional spaces and landscape of the hospitality design. Defining the significance of these elements as a driving principle for the renovation, the architects state, “The design intent seeks to honour the authentic quality of natural materials and highlights the relationship between human beings and nature over time. This is a direct reference to the dialectical relation between craftsmen and their understanding of the natural properties of materials. The Brickyard Retreat demonstrates pride in the Beigou village heritage by honouring a tradition of exceptional workmanship while defining its own architectural style. The renovation of Brickyard Retreat respects and embraces the local craft history while highlighting the evolution of consciousness that cultural products can bring to people and society.”
Mediating the cultural heritage and history of the building are the glazed tiles. With distinct patterns, the methods and sizes of tiles vary for roofing, indoor flooring and courtyard paving. “The rich tile mosaics engage the visitor through multiple senses, from its varied tactile quality, its acoustic signature, to its visually engaging brightly coloured patterns. Every effort is made to convey the social significance of preserving and reinterpreting cultural heritage in the current society,” mention the architects. Celebrating the uniqueness of the old kiln in the former tile factory, much of the existing interior texture of the structure has been preserved. With this minimal intervention, only one extra interior wall is added to the kiln building. Letting the relics of its former use remain and be displayed along with new additions, the visitors are provided with the opportunity to experience and impart all stages of the building.
Within the traditional sense of vernacular construction, the materials used in the project hold much value and challenge. In homage to the local rural heritage, most of the structure is constructed out of red bricks. While using local materials, the architects attempt to explore its new expressive qualities. The architects add, “The re-conceptualisation and re-appropriation of traditional materials and techniques seek to investigate the dialogue between spatial relations, forms of inhabitation and ideologies from both urban and rural living conditions.” Reinventing the typology to hold the stories of the tile factory while aiding its new identity of hospitality, Brickyard Retreat extends a fine example of sensitive adaptive reuse. Though the spaces have been revamped to fit the necessary functions, the iconic features of the factory, the old kiln and its cave-like sequences are reciprocated in the hotel architecture too.
“Three years after the completion of “San She Nostalgic Station” and “San Sa Village”, at the foot of the Mutianyu Great Wall, the Brickyard Retreat presents itself as another study of spatial and cultural reappropriation within this unique rural context. The project challenges the relations between rural and urban life within spaces of critical cultural significance. At llLab. we seek to develop an inclusive approach, that reconceptualises local landscape and architectural languages to create interrelated spatial qualities. We hope that the projects can stimulate people to actively seek a special perception of culture,” share the architects. While we come across projects where architecture significantly anchors the upliftment of thriving cultural heritage, it brings new directions to the possibilities lying in the industry. In such scenarios, adaptive reuse of existing buildings that hold the heritage, past and tradition of the context seems to be a more efficient approach than a completely new proposal as they also come with a sense of familiarity for people. However, amid urbanisation, when villages go to cities, can architectural intervention through the tourism and hospitality industry be enough to keep our rural areas alive?
Name: Brickyard Retreat Renovation
Location: Beigou Village, Huairou, Beijing, China
Site Area: 5336.27 sq.m.
New Construction Area: 393.54 sq.m.
Renovation Area: 752.36 sq.m.
Total Construction Area: 1145.9 sq.m.
Project Client: 2049 Investment Group
Project Architectural Design: llLab.
Project Partners: Luis Ricardo, Hanxiao Liu
Project Team: Lingling Liu, Yujun Yan, Fei Chen, Yihui Zhao, Henry D’Ath, Matt Eshleman, Lingkong Yin, Ziyu Wei, Camilo Espitia, Anqi Zhu, Jie Yu
Structural Consulting: LaLu Structural Consulting
Project Construction: Wenjie Xu, Yi Wang and team
Project Interior Finishing: Beijing Sheng He Li