Traditional Chinese House Design

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Traditional Chinese housing varied by era and region, but remarkable and timeless similarities distinguish architectural styles that have endured for millennia. Site orientation, materials, foundation blueprint, and the Chinese preoccupation with harmony and balance still influence house design. Rich and poor lived in the same basic layout in residences made to conform to spiritual principles and tap into abundant natural resources. Then and now, houses used mud brick, pounded earth, wood framing and tile.

Residential houses along water in China.
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The courtyard house is what most people think of when they imagine traditional Chinese architecture. Courtyard houses are enclosed compounds with windowless walls and house facades facing outward, with all rooms opening onto the central courtyard. The residents were protected from invaders and invasive weather by the inward-facing buildings and connected walls, all laid out in perfect symmetry. In Beijing, the old hutong houses, in neighborhoods built according to customs dating from the 15th century on, are designed in courtyard style. Those enclosed, extended- and single-family dwellings began to disappear after the Communist revolution. As more people crowded into the cities, the propertied classes were ousted, and the poor crowded into the hutongs, filling spacious courtyards with crude shanty-like structures to house numerous families.

Chinese courtyard.
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China's raw materials were and still are pressed into service to create housing. Wood posts, joists, lintels and beams are used for the traditional framework of a house that was historically -- and might still be -- built on a stable pounded-earth foundation. The frames outlined three bays, or sections, as a basic structure. A larger house might have five bays, but the number had to be odd to attract good fortune. Walls might be made of mud brick; roofs were thatched for more humble dwellings and covered in glazed tile for middle class and wealthy families. Windows once were open latticework, beautifully scrolled and carved in the most privileged compounds. Wood supporting pillars in these upper-class homes were painted with colorful and gilded flowers. Wood ceilings were covered in elaborate mythological murals, with dragons and symbolic flora and fauna in bright colors against glowing backgrounds.

Traditional Chinese houses from aerial view.
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China's ancient art of placement, feng shui, determined the orientation of a traditional house and the progression through its rooms. Feng shui is often a practical art. The main door faced south, which, in practical terms, simply meant that the gentlest, sunniest weather entered through the front door. The south-facing door practice dates to Neolithic times, as revealed in archaeological digs at sites such as Xi'an's more than 7,000-year-old Banpo village. The closed outer walls and back of a dwelling symbolize a protective mountain behind a well-oriented home. The open courtyard is the expanded chi or energy of the natural landscape; it is yang, and the walls are yin for balance. The rooms and entrances force traffic patterns that turn and twist. Screens and walls hide views and require a meandering path, like the sinuous bed of a river that attracts and holds good chi in its curves.

Clean, traditional Chinese interior.
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China's rural population is migrating to the cities, leaving rural areas prey to abandonment or cheap, ugly development. Young Chinese architects grapple with the problem of providing new sustainable housing in the countryside that blends the old and new ways and honors traditional culture. John Lin, a University of Hong Kong architecture professor, won the 2012 "Architectural Review" magazine House Award for a modern interpretation of a rural mud brick house. Lin's prototypes are designed for individual adaptation and are all built around one or more courtyards. The rooms connect to sheltered livestock areas via the courtyards. Concrete columns provide earthquake stability, and the mud brick supplies insulation. Roofs collect water; solar panels and pig biogas provide heat. A staircase leads to a roof terrace, and exposed step-seating allows easy access to crop-drying areas.

Alleyway in Beijing, China.
Chen Chao/Dorling Kindersley RF/Getty Images

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