House of Steps by Chaoffice

Located in Beijing, China, this single family house has been recently completely redesigned by Chaoffice.

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The project site is located within the Taihang Mountains 70 kilometers from Beijing. The clients, a young couple, are native to the mountains and the yardformerly served as home to their parents. Years past, and the family moved to the city, the yard left abandoned, broken and derelict. Clients wish to renovate the yard into a comfortable place.Our clients wish to renovate the yard into a place which could be comfortable again.

The village is spread from the bottom of a valley to the slopes, and the yard located nearly at the highest point.According to local folklore,a castle once stood above the village, built during the Yuan Dynasty.This is how the village’s name, meaning “under fortress” came to be,and as you look back you find yourself gazing upon beautiful Da’an Mountain and the Zhaitang Valley. Both of which have been left unchanged for millions of years.

The main road through the village follows a large slope, the small hutongs dotting its route dark and narrow; single story houses appear low, covered by grey rock and cement. These elements coalesce to form the image of the village, which we do not want to challenge. The building would not to be an invention. In essence, the existing scale, shape, and color together make the building merge in with the background. At the same time, it acquires its own identity from small details ofalienations. All unusual elements belonging to onenarrative, andact as a representation of the behavior of people who occupy the building inside.

Although no physical evidence of the legendary castle can now be seen, we can still experience and imagine what the Mongolian solders would have experienced when occupying the site, their perspective still intact.

This experience becomes the starting point of our narrative. First of all, the distinction between indoor and outdoor, as well as the differences between rooms was all ignored. The entire site transformed into a grand platform; an open, shared space. The hutong lies on the north side, with an open view to the south. Parts of the platform rise up and parts drop down according to the variety of heights belonging to the neighbor southward, and this created a sort of “platform upon platform”. As there are views on each corner of the site, the mountains themselves became a part of the building.

The entire space exists between unchanged ceiling and uneven ground. Variety in scale and shape help create distinct spaces, each providing its own feeling. Some partsfloor rising so high and there would be rooms even underneath. Some parts drop down low, so as to create a loft space on top. All of these additional spaces are meant for private use as bedrooms or bathrooms. There are also many more subtle height differences, so platforms can be linked together using steps. Larger steps, between 400mm and 800mm, transform into a “table” or “chair”. When one walks through or sits inside, it would not feel dissimilar to nesting in a cave within the mountains. Contrasting this with the expansive views the site provides, the concept of “here and there, two mountains” appears.

In continuing the landscape, we tried to weaken the idea of “wall” as a boundary separating different rooms. In actuality the shear wall combined with added storage space together form a very thick volume, standing between different spaces. Simultaneously, due to local customs, windows open on the north wall are not allowed, so we made the top of the wall bend inward, creating a gap between the wall and eaves, following the roof line. This window faces the hutong rather than the neighbors house and wind could then blow through the space, the bending wall helping to create a small environment underneath. As people sit inside facing the magnificent views, they can feel a sense of shelter, and at night, the light from within makes the gloomy hutong brighter.

If only talking about the main platform, we can define 4 rough sections, from lowest to highest. The east end of the building contains a small sitting room under a loft bedroom. Visitors can sit around two 300mm deep hollows both in and outside, to enjoy a relaxing moment with company.

The next section is a higher area that is large in scale and bright inside. The kitchen and dining room are both located here, as well as the main living room. The outer area is also a large space, and the landscape defining this section provides kitchen cupboards, tables, and sofas.

The third section is the entrance area. As people enter the building, they have three separate routes to choose from; leading to either the lower bedrooms, outside to the garden, or to the main living space.

The fourth section is not actually within the house itself, but sits on top of the lower bedrooms. The height under the ceiling is quite low and is not suitable to function as an indoor space, so it instead becomes a special outdoor space under the eave. People can sit here as they watch the mountain, drinking tea and playing games together. It could very well be the most interesting space on the site.

Visitors can arrive at their bedrooms via steps going both upwards and downwards from the public platform. Watching the mountains from the loft bedroom window feels like looking through a pair of binoculars.

In the mountains north west of Beijing there is an ever growing awareness among people towards the value of nature, or vistas, or clean air, water and food, and even the different feelings provided as one season changes to the next. These aspects together have become the collective dream of those living in the city, and when they come from the city, they wish to find a place far away from our omnipresent modern consumerist society or the strange desires of designers.

As with our other projects, in “house of steps” we still search for what can be brought forth from the idea of continuity. If we ignore the traditional definitions applied to “floors”, “rooms”, or “furniture”, can we perceive a building as a landscape? The idea of “here and there two mountains”—this human behavior taking place on the landscape—copies the form of this large area, and can also provide a hint, a special kind of experience unique to this land and which can be traced back long before our time.

Photography by Cheng Zhi

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- by Matt Watts