The owners of a two-bedroom apartment in a Beijing neighborhood wanted the convenience of living in the city but the spirit of a classical Japanese countryside home. Despite those two wishes seemingly being at odds, that’s exactly what they got—thanks to a cleverly designed teahouse built over their outdoor balcony.
Faced with the challenge of bringing a traditional Japanese design to Beijing, designers Hu Yan and Li Han of Drawing Architecture Studio saw an opportunity in the client’s small, open balcony. In fact, they say the feature became so important to the design process that it actually became the name for the entire renovation project: Free Balcony An.
The designers were inspired by the ideas of the contemporary Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori, whose iconic Takasugi-an Tea House is built on two spindly chestnut trees in Nagano prefecture, in central Japan (the name literally means “a teahouse built too high”).
Hu and Li wanted to re-create the same sense of otherworldly, fairy-tale-like magic in their client’s condo building. That meant using similar materials, like wood and black slate, but also referring to the architectural theory underlying Fujimori’s work, including details drawn from Jomon architecture—which dates to Neolithic-era Japan, beginning around 10,500BC, and lasting until 300BC.
For instance, sloped roofs are common in ancient Jomon architecture, and they play a major role in Fujimori’s architectural theory—the architect believes low, sloped roofs help to stimulate peoples’ bodies by forcing them to adapt their posture to a varied space. “Following Fujimori’s instruction, [we] extended the curved roof of Free Balcony An downwards as much as possible and only left a narrow opening above the original breast board of the balcony as a horizontal window,” they write over email.
The entire interior is built in the same interior style, with tatami and intentional variations in height helping to transform the space into a “house of giants.” For instance, the architects added small paned windows to create an illusion of scale, as if the teahouse was a model or a magical dollhouse. (To me, it looks like a space where Hayao Miyazaki‘s Totoro would live if he had to live in a city.) “The horizontal window becomes the façade of the An and the original breast board becomes its base,” they write in their project description. Compared to this façade, they explain, the curved roof looks huge, like a second floor, “and the roof window seems like an attic hidden on the roof.”
The final product is essentially an optical illusion, as the architects demonstrate with an illustration showing a seemingly massive person peeking out of the attic window. To a person on the street walking by the condo, the lower horizontal windows show some of the heads and shoulders of inhabitants having tea while seated on tatami. But if anyone stands up, they’ll appear in the attic window, almost like a giant.
The architects think that the balcony is such a powerful design that it “isolates” the entire home from the nondescript building in which it resides. They’re not mistaken. It feels like a special, cozy place to enjoy life in the middle of Beijing.