Beijing Siheyuan Building

Beijing Siheyuan Building
China has a large territory and a wide spectrum of ethnic groups. The varied natural landscapes and ethnic customs give rise to a colorful and rich characteristic in the various architectural styles that are apparent in residences all across China. These residences are not only unique in its building structure, but are also wide in variety.
Beijing Siheyuan Building (Courtyard Houses)
In Northern China, one major characteristic of the traditional residential houses is the courtyard, which is the center of the house. A courtyard house is built on the basic principle of having a firm, solid exterior blend in with a vacant, spacious interior. The house is constructed on an invisible axis, around which the different functional rooms are built. Beijing’s courtyard houses (siheyuan四合院) were predominantly situated within the capital city. Its architectural structure fit perfectly into the official model that was typical in the capital, which deemed it necessary to fulfill certain religious and moral principle that were essential to maintaining order in a traditional family.
A typical Beijing courtyard house employed an invisible north-south axis when designing the layout of the house. The main gate of the house would be placed at the southeastern corner of the house. In accordance to principles of feng shui (风水) and the Eight Trigrams, this is considered the most auspicious direction and could bring wealth to the household. Upon entering the house, one is greeted by an exquisitely crafted screen wall, which, in the past, carried the function of warding off evil spirits. It also helps in creating space and maintaining one’s privacy.
A turn to the west of the mian gate would be a small and narrow front yard. To the south of the courtyard are the living room, study, accounts room and storage room. To the north of the front yard is the second and inner gate of the compound, which is also situated along the axis. The two festoon pillars at its sides are exquisitely carved with elaborate floral designs, making it the most prominent design element in the entire courtyard compound. The festoon gate acts as divider between the outer and inner courtyards. Behind the festoon gate is the main living compound of the courtyard house. Here, the courtyard is beautifully landscaped with trees and other plants, creating a tranquil and comfortable living environment. To the north of the courtyard, the south-facing principal room makes up the main building of the courtyard house. And in accordance to Ming and Qing building regulations for residential houses, there are usually three rooms-with two side rooms flanking the principal room. At both sides of courtyard are the wing-rooms. Behind the principal room, there is a small courtyard, with a row of rooms forming the last section of the courtyard compound.
Within a courtyard compound, all the rooms are assigned to the members of the family according to seniority. The principal rooms are for the senior members of the household. Within the principal room, an altar and the ancestor tablet are put in place. The side rooms are for the junior members. For the other rooms in the house, they must not surpass the principal rooms in terms of their areas, heights and interior decoration. This gives prominence to the idea of showing respect to the ancestors and acknowledging the power and influence of the patriarch. This makes the principal room not only the main activity room of the family, but also a symbol of the family’s spirit. One advantage of a courtyard house is that it could be infinitely expanded. As the number of family members increases, more rooms can be added, with more courtyards created. More courtyards and rooms can also be built beyond the existing compound, with corridors and walls connecting the annexes to the main compound. This construction mode for residential houses is in keeping with China’s ancient family tradition and its development.
Other than those in Beijing, the courtyard houses in south Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan, etc. , are long and narrow built in the north-south direction, as it is hot during the summer, and hence helps in shedding the interior of the house from the strong sunlight. In the northwestern provinces, such as Gansu and Qinghai, the houses have thick and high walls to keep away sand and protect from the cold weather. In the northeastern provinces, where the land is vast with small population, and a weather that is often cold, there is the need to maximize the intake of sunlight. Hence, the houses there are usually big and spacious. Thus, in various places in China, the courtyard houses take on different characteristics in accordance to the environments they are in.

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