The Water House

(Lijiang, Yunnan, China, 2009)

□   Site

The Water House (Miaolu) is a private house, located at the foot of a snow-capped mountain, in the suburbs of Lijiang, Yunnan Province. Situated on a hillside, it is surrounded by mountains and water. Its pitched roof is perfectly integrates perfectly with the magnificent mountain and the three pools—the central water yard and the encircling water outside—seem like plates holding up the house. This, together with 360 degrees of mountain scenery allows for uninterrupted panoramic views from the interior out.

At the foot of Yulong Snow Mountain, there is an open plane in front of which lies the Yuhu reservoir. Dappled igneous rocks, coupled with trees and water, enrich the color and texture of this area. Most houses in neighboring villages are traditional with enclosed courtyards. In the traditional Chinese courtyard (either the siheyuan (courtyard) of northern China or the tianjin (patio) residence of southern China), walls mark almost all boundaries and the scenery is what the courtyard captures. This architectural principle focuses on the spatial qualities of the interior of a house has an opposite attitude towards the landscape beyond. The Water House had to respond to specific environmental challenges: how to occupy the open field (rather than a bounded courtyard) and integrate with—and even use—the surrounding landscape.

□   Thinking of Design

The pavilion built in the open mountain plateau is to absorb the wild flow of energy, from which sees the panoramic view of the magnificent southern mountains.

– From Weng Juan’s To Lin Suizhi About Zhenyi Pavillion

Like Weng Juan, a poet in the Southern Song Dynasty, Li Xiaodong believes that “naxu” means to set up buildings in the open field, to stabilize qichang (a flow of energy), to harbor the flow of air and water, and to make good use of local landscape and condition:

When I got there and saw the wild qichang, I felt I should gather qi. A wild field should be equipped with qichang to let people enjoy staying there. To keep qi relies on water and courtyard. The size of the building is of prime importance, because it is impossible for either a too big or too small building to keep qi.

Architecture relies on scale, visual arrangement, place and spatial alternation to have a stable foundation in the wildness—to retain the security and charm of the courtyard and make full use of the natural landscape. “People in the yard feel a sense of security, but it’s not enclosed. And they can see the distant mountains and water from each corner, which is a form of expression.”

About layout

In order to create qichang and a sense of circulation, the architects designed a deliberate spatial sequence from the entrance to the hall. Because of the height difference between the building and the road, the entire building cannot be seen from the outside—from nearby or at a distance. From the parking lot to the gate, one has to walk through a narrow doorway built under the pool and then up stairs to the high platform. It is only from there that one has a panoramic view of the mirror-like water surface and the broad mountain landscape. The still mirror-like water surface extends to the edges of the high platform and plays the role of railings. It creates a square without deliberate borders. The edge of the pool is lowered on purpose. In this way one sees only the mountain scenery on the water. Walking into the gate, one sees a small space enclosed by a screen wall. After a turn, and a distance along a path on the water surface of the internal courtyard, there is the living room from which people can see water and mountain scenery through louvers. Sitting in a low chair that is as close as possible to water, and looking into the distance, one notices that the flat water surface adds delicate ornamentation to the magnificent mountain beyond. Li Xiaodong once compared this house to French cuisine: “the broad water surface is like a large plate holding up the central dish-like house.” Looking across the surface of the water, the mountain landscape resembles a delicacy.

About architecture

The main building sits on one level, without huge ups or downs. Between the shifting relationship of building volume, roof and the planted trees the layered views near and far are discerned. Looking out from the square, the building profile integrates with the mountain and the setting as a whole. The architects carefully used local materials and simple construction techniques to create a quiet architectural language, integrating the “artificial” elements with nature and the local culture. The focus here is on space and atmosphere, and local texture rather than decorative detailing is emphasized. The wood and glass house reminds people of traditional forms without excluding significant contemporary features. Lightweight slatted walls subtly veil the light, and bamboo becomes the green core of the central courtyard. The cool and smooth water passes through the house and low eaves define and enclose the indoor and outdoor space. The interior space planning is kept simple so that people can fully enjoy the beauty of nature. Just as “environment decorated with water and embraced with courtyards,” the water here creates the environment. The three pools in the atrium, and those outside the yard and the gate, echo the Chinese character of “Miao – constituted by three Chinese “water” characters,” and create a still water Zen state.

When it comes to tectonic language, architects have been deliberately avoiding the use of regional symbols. In the Yuhu Elementary School and the Bridge School in Fujian, the architects attempted to find the appropriate contemporary language to express a classic space. The Water House’s simple modern materials—glass and steel columns—together with its low-pitched roofs make a relaxing and comfortable place. The spacious room, smooth water surface and sweep of gauze-like louvers suggest grand scale. Numerous details express a modern attitude: steel joints are used where the wooden columns meet the ground and at the junction of wooden beams. The wooden louver screens, structure of the water yard against texture of the rocky courtyard wall and pebble ground, all add tension to the space. The modern technical language is relaxing and calming. It is not showy or falsely reticent. Instead, it works in combination with local materials and construction techniques in a concise way. The details blend with the setting and allow people to focus on the scale and space of the building rather than how it was made.

What is special about the Water House is the relative freedom the architects had in terms of the cost of the project. The designers were able to focus on issues of perception of environment, how the building would be lived and the articulation of space and scale. It is in these issues that the architects found the starting points for their dialogues with nature, methods for artificially absorbing the energy flows of the place and for adding more color to the landscape. These conceptual “entry points” formed the foundation for the successful and smooth completion of everything else.

□   Contemporary & Regionalism

The colors of the House, mainly those of its gray tiles and wooden louvers, along with its enclosed patio and the veranda, remind people of Naxi dwellings in Lijiang. This is what the architects anticipated from the start: “an accomplished work is supposed to be part of and grow from the location.” There are a lot of coincidences between the design of the Water House and Naxi architectural culture. But these correspondences do not just stem from “theories” concerning the characteristics of Naxi dwellings. Most Naxi dwellings are wood structures, whereas the main part of the Water House is built of steel. There is no doubt that steel structures are the strongest for anti-seismic levels of 8 or below. This kind of structure is also relatively freer and lighter to deploy. The architects made no effort to hide the steel structure and deliberately exposed some of the structural details of the steel framework and jointing.

But what is often referred to in Naxi dwellings as the so-called “three squares a screen wall, four yards, five patios, one higher square of the principal room, and facing south,” is entirely reflected by the building and the way the architects interpreted the particularities of the Water House’s functions and location.

LI Xiaodong believes, “theory is only to help understand, it is not the model of the practice, let alone a literal imitation and symbolic excuse.” For him, contemporary thinking should be based in present situation and, similarly, an historical building should also be interpreted for now. Regionalism is a kind of attitude, an attitude about how to deal with any piece of land or a design. This kind of regionalism is what is means to be contemporary and critical.

□   Conclusion

Globalization has brought the convenience of information exchange and the advantages of resource sharing. It is gradually blurring the boundaries between different ethnic groups, facilitating greater and greater blending. But it has also evokes focused our attention on local culture. In his Universal Civilization and National Cultures, Paul Ricoeur wrote that the question a developing undeveloped nation faces, as it embarks on the path to modernization, is whether it should abolish the past of its culture in order to survive.

The Water House represents a case of an architect actively seeks a dialogue with that past. In the new architecture of Chinese cities, we see so many buildings trapped in fussy self-expression, buildings that seem to be rejecting any kind of conversation. In the complicated environment of developing China, it is difficult for architectural practices to have enough presence of mind to engage in a broader discourse. Some practitioners prefer to borrow traditional symbolic language and fall into the “new Chinese style” or “Neo-classicalist” camp. Others are engrossed by the performance of new technologies such as “digital architecture,” promises that are difficult to put into practice. In this era, Chinese architectural practice is still short of vocabularies and a considerable part of architects’ intellectual resources go without expression and are being wasted soundlessly. In the Water House, we see an example of the “countryside encircling cities.” The project is a signal to contemporary architects for how to make good use of their creativity, powers of observation and imagination.