Rampant changes to the compositions of household structures and the dwellings that accommodate them have taken place in recent decades. In this light, the concept of an ancestral residence, hosting generations of a joint family under a single roof throughout its lifespan, is one that has flown under the radar to a certain extent, in the face of high-density housing systems tailored towards more nuclear family structures and faster occupant turnover. While exploring the theoretical underpinnings of this fading typology in designing a home along a beachfront site for two entrepreneur brothers in Zhangzhou, within China’s Fujian province, Chinese architecture practice More Than Arch Studio explored the notion of creating spaces that would become associated with innumerable memories, and facilitate the formation of familial bonds over generations.
“The Flowing Garden is radically different from most contemporary private houses in China. The three-acre residential plot it is situated upon is rectangular with short sides towards the north and south. A 30-metre-wide municipal windbreak forest belt of she-oak was densely planted between the site and the beach, to interrupt direct sea views from the site, and hinder the influence of strong typhoons in the area,” shares the firm in an official release. They add, “The owners intended to build a home composed of three parts: two independent residential buildings for each brother’s family and a leisure space for gathering, meeting, fitness and other activities. In addition, they hoped that the newly-built house would be the spatial carrier of the whole family’s memories from generation to generation.”
By virtue of the main entrance being situated towards the northern end of the site, the architects zoned the public leisure spaces along this edge and then placed the more private residential areas towards the south. This clean bifurcation in the program was then followed by the separation of the two dwelling units for the two siblings’ families, creating a negative space that formed a ribbon courtyard, as per the architects. Apart from the larger two-storey volumes enclosing the residence along its northern and southern edges, most of the massing is constrained to a single level. “Such a spatial scale is more in line with the theme of the garden,” relays More Than Arch Studio.
As building heights were constrained to 10 metres by local regulations, and due to the lack of engaging, unobstructed views along each edge of the site, the design team resolved to look inwards, centring the residence’s architecture around a courtyard with a pond at its heart. The subtraction of this mass from the layout was implemented in order to segregate leisure areas from residential ones, but also interlink them through an organic break in built forms. Further subtraction generated the complex massing of blocks that define the abode, framing a plethora of negative spaces that would then be filled by meandering gardens, structured as a sequence of intimate, enclosed scenes.
Drawing from precedents set by Chinese landscape gardens and courtyard-style houses in the regions’ traditional architecture, the entire structure is a microcosm of the larger natural world in its own right, blending landscape design and restrained concrete architecture. Traversing the main circulation path through the structure gradually reveals “an internal route that is like a temporal thread linking all the spaces. Vague boundaries between different areas allow the courtyard to flow in between the rooms,” according to the architects. It is this erosion of defined enclosure that aids in forging the unique mix of spatial contraction and expansion within the project, as variations in levels craft a subtle sense of visual hierarchy. The landscaping itself features plants that can adapt to Fujian’s relatively warm temperatures, and assist in moderating the internal microclimate.
Contrasts between these two qualities have shaped the distinctions in the leisure and residential zones – where the former exhibits a more open layout to host public activities, and the latter remains more compact. A grand dining room, tea room, and multifunctional space enclose the central courtyard. The south-facing tea room features a platform projecting into the water of the pond, while a courtyard placed to its northern end opens up the space, infusing it with an air of transparency. Accommodating the clients’ desire to host family gatherings during festivals, the architects placed two 10-seater dining tables in the dining area, which is also linked to an inner patio. The space can be opened up towards a bounding corridor when necessary, in order to expand its scale and depth.
On the basement floor in the leisure wing, an indoor heated pool rests next to a sunken courtyard, with light filtering in through openings and a skylight at the bottom of a waterscape above it. As seen from the pool area on the basement, bamboo planted in the sunken courtyard space, soars towards the heavens, infusing a burst of green to the stark concrete enclosing it. This zone also contains a number of guest bedrooms on the northern end of the second floor, configured to overlook garden spaces to the south.
In the residential wing, beyond the series of miniature garden landscapes, the two dwelling units for both families have been combined into a single block that is partitioned internally. The architects staggered the placement of entryways for both housing units to maintain the privacy of occupants. “We placed the master bedrooms of the two brothers on the second floor on the best side facing the sea. The first floor contains a residential space including the lounge and tea break areas. The other rooms gradually extend northward on the first floor while a corridor serves as a connection between the rooms, with views available from the window openings looking into it,” shares More Than Arch Studio.
Multifunctional rooms inside this block face the tea room near the pond, with sloping roofs that allow runoff to collect inside the water body. Auxiliary bedrooms are said to be relatively smaller, but their position overlooking the courtyard and patio aid in expanding their spatiality. The basement also hosts a few spare bedrooms, illuminated and ventilated by the void of the sunken courtyard. “In addition, the basement is also equipped with living affiliated functions such as the living room, the home theatre, the lounge, and the laundry room, etc,” notes the design team.
Fair-faced exposed concrete is the primary medium of material expression throughout the home. Cast in pinewood formwork, the resulting texture of the walls exhibits a pronounced horizontal grain that complements the natural progression of spaces within the plan. “For the auxiliary materials of the project, a range of warm-coloured finishes, such as outdoor bamboo panels, brass components, wood-coloured doors, and windows and grille systems, were used to moderate the fair-faced concrete. Therefore, a certain balance is achieved between the ‘warm’ interior materials and the ‘cold’ concrete, refined and restrained,” mentions the firm. They add, “As the materials are concise and unified, the building itself becomes the background while the space becomes the protagonist, possessing a higher value.”
More Than Arch Studio also fashioned a number of bespoke furniture designs from wood purchased by the clients, complementing them with vintage pieces and paintings that complete the interior design. “Old goods, such as brick carvings, old boat woods, and ceramic jars, collected by the owners in the past have been appropriately integrated into the residential space,” adds the practice.
In conclusion, the designers share, “The design of the Flowing Garden explores the use of contemporary materials to create a modern residential space in a traditional style. The origin of the project’s name is not only a reference to the materiality of concrete itself, but also a metaphor for the flow of space within it. The project’s conceptualisation and construction took five years in its entirety and underwent a series of adaptations from simplicity to complexity and back again, just like a journey slowly approaching the essence of life.”
Name: The Flowing Garden
Location: Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province, China
Area: 1,700 sqm
Year of Completion: 2021
Architectural Design: More Than Arch Studio
Chief Architect: Jin Niu
Interior Design: Zhenyao Huang / East Design
Structure Design: Ruobing Bai, Weijun Zheng
Furnishings Consultant: Lili Lin, Liqing Lin
Landscape Consultant: Chi Xiao / Aland Landscape
Team Members: Xiaopeng Luo, Zhiqin Xu, Xiaoda Lin, Jiadong Wu, Xiaoxiang Luo, Zhongju Chen, Huifu Hou, Shaochuan Zhang, Fenfen Gong, Xiaohui Liu, Haiyan Liu, Qian Lin, Siyang Zheng, Huachun Yu, Jianhua Wang, Zhixu Zhang, Zhiwei Xu, Shengwei Yu, Hui Cai, Xiaowei Wu
Artist: Guanzhen Wu
Vintage Furniture: Stream
Cooperative Design Institute: Xiamen Hordor Architecture & Engineering Design Group Co., Ltd., No.1 Civil Design Institute