The Red-Wall Teahouse by Chinese studio Cutscape Architecture at the periphary of the Forbidden City in Beijing walks a thin line between history and the present.
For over 500 years, the Forbidden City formed the nucleus of China. It was the home of emperors and their dynasties, it was the political seat of the government, it was invaded and captured and battles were fought over it. But over the last century, the Beijing cityscape has evolved and the intricately carved ancient towers and roofs now have to jostle with skyscrapers.
The Forbidden City was thus named, because nobody could enter it or leave from there without the emperor’s permission. The red brick wall that hems in the Imperial Palace still exists, but its significance has blurred.
The recently unveiled Red-Wall Teahouse is one such space that connects tradition with the current. It has been inserted inside a public park which used to be the Ancestral Temple, a royal memorial temple for ancestors southeast to the Forbidden City.
The red wall of the Forbidden City forms the backdrop and Hutong houses surround the other sides. Two dilapidated old industrial sheds occupied the space where the teahouse now stands, one attached to the red imperial wall and the other one set around three meters away north to the first one.
The industrial sheds marked an opening in the wall, which effectively gave the Red-Wall Teahouse direct access to the Imperial garden. When Chinese studio Cutscape Architecture conceptualised the layout, they wanted experience of rambling in a village when they entered the teahouse.
The warehouse close to the Wall was worse for wear, and thus the team at Cutscape was compelled to make more drastic structural changes there. That space was given an inside-outside kind of a setting by taking down the roof and replacing it with a new roofline of steel and glass triangles, thus converting the space into a sort of an unroofed garden.
The new roofline respects the height of the historical palace wall and at the same time resonates with the buildings which make up the surrounding Hutong.
A tree-lined street leads to the Red-Wall Teahouse. Freestanding steel-frame tea rooms are clustred in the middle of the unroofed garden. The glass panels placed in different angles that reflect the brick wall give the impression, that many segments of the wall are standing alone.
A Gravel-paved pathway leads to the north teahouse, whose exterior is insulated with new material. Its interior was transformed to match the modern needs of the space, floor-to-ceiling acrylic tubes were used to give it an ultra-modern appearance. The space has been designed to host tea ceremonies as well as serve as a venue for events, exhibitions, meetings and other social occasions.
The complex has seven main rooms, each of which has been given a distinctive appearance by using different interior finishes, like bamboo, white marble, copper, acrylic tubes, etc. The unique character of each tearoom creates an ambience that is unique to itself.
The cloud tearoom for instance is extensively done up with white and grey streaked marble. This combined with the glass opening in the roof which opens the space to the sky lends it a surreal floating feeling that lives up to its name.
The bamboo tearoom on the other hand has a more earthy tone with bamboo sheets making up its interiors. The acrylic tearoom, fitted with floor to ceiling acrylic tubes has an ultra-modern appearance, in stark contrast to its heritage location.
What makes the Red-Wall Teahouse distinct is that the modern materials have not been used to make it stand out, but in fact, the architects have made a conscious design decision to engage and reflect the heritage and the history of its surrounds.
In the past, the wall had been a symbol of the social class division in old China, which in recent years had become simply a spatial boundary between the imperial garden and the Hutong houses.
The Red-Wall goes one step further in bridging the gap by giving local residents the opportunity to get closer to the traditional structure and at the same time introducing a modern touch to the ancient temple.
Text By Himali Kothari
Photographs Courtesy Wang Yi, Zhang Hetian, Chen Su