‘I wanted to climb on the roof’ – architect Ma Yansong tells John van de Water how he channelled his four-year-old self and ancient history in the design of YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten
MAD Architects‘ YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten is in east Beijing, in a neighbourhood that has been transformed over the past few decades. Here, as in many areas of the city, the traditional ‘hutongs’ – residential districts characterised by narrow alleys and single storey courtyard houses called ‘siheyuans’ – have made way for wider roads and modern multistorey blocks.
The new kindergarten, however, weaves around its urban environment, including one of the last siheyuans in its district, between ancient trees and next to a 1990s building. Catering for around 400 children aged from two to five years, the kindergarten is right in the middle of it all. It’s an historic setting – the oldest parts of the siheyuans date from 1725 – but also a rapidly developing one.
MAD founder and director Ma Yansong’s design features a colourful floating roof that seamlessly integrates and protects the existing buildings and trees. The roof is envisioned as an escape for children, symbolic of freedom and imagination. Little artificial hills and a slide create a playful landscape. Below the roof, the interior spaces unfurl with an open, free-flowing layout that also is designed to encourage exploration, creativity and inclusivity. Here teaching space merges with the library, amphitheatre and gymnasium. Three new courtyards centred around three ancient trees punch up through the roofscape, flooding the interior with daylight and opening up to the ancient hutong buildings to create a compelling dialogue between old and new. In a city that is changing at rapid pace it shows it’s possible to move forward without forgetting the past. From the moment the building opened at the start of the last school year, it received praise and recognition from the Chinese architectural profession for its alternating views of old and new and the way they stimulate understanding of place and history.
Although the building is open for children at the moment, visitors are prohibited because of the pandemic so I talk to Ma Yansong on Zoom as he quarantines in Xiamen having recently returned to China from the United States.
John van de Water Thinking about Covid and its impact, isn’t this pandemic a perpetuation of your design philosophy of ‘Shanshui-City’? That is, a quest for a more inclusive and balanced relationship between urban life and nature?
Ma Yansong Yes. And I’ve been talking about this long before Covid. It is increasingly important to include more nature and space in our cities as it will create more opportunities for sustainable life and beauty. But of course, I recognise the tension with the existing conditions and density of many Chinese megacities. Still, for the future of Chinese urbanisation, I foresee less dense, smaller cities, well connected and of a far more manageable scale.
JVDW A challenging future ahead — and considering its scale, MAD has a very diverse portfolio of numerous large projects. What’s the significance of a much smaller project like the YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten in your work and thinking?
MA For me, a project like this is probably more important than for any other architect in our office. It compensates for the daily pressure of working on large urban projects and complex cultural contexts. Working on a kindergarten seems more cherishing, more tangible than large scale projects.
JVDW Are kindergarten projects therapeutic?
MA Yes, kindergarten projects are about healing myself…
JVDW How come?
MA When designing kindergartens, I imagine myself being a child again. Growing up in Beijing, going to a courtyard school myself, I enjoyed my childhood so much. I remember that we, naughty kids, always wanted to climb on the courtyard building’s roof. I guess now, that was to escape the spatial constraints of the courtyard building and to cross boundaries to discover new worlds. And the brilliant thing about the YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten was that I could provide opportunities for a new young generation to climb on the roof!
JVDW As you grew up in Beijing, how close to your heart is this project, if you put it into the context of the urban transformation the city has experienced over the last decades?
MA It’s a showcase project to me, allowing me to present my attitude to Beijing’s urban issues in one single scheme. You know, in China people tend to think ‘new is better’ and as a result many old buildings have been demolished. Or vice versa, when traditional buildings are considered valuable, they are newly built, often lacking true identity. We can’t only have two options, demolishing the old or having nothing new. I think there’s a third way to create new things.
JVDW And for this ‘third way’ to create, I guess you were lucky to find an old courtyard building on the site? Even though the extension of the old courtyard house was a poorly designed – fake – addition?
MA Very lucky! At the initial site visit, I was very clear about two aspects. First, history was key. In China, one of the bigger challenges in the education system is finding ‘the real’. Why have so many fake old buildings been constructed? I believe this ‘new-old’ is confusing to people. This issue is important for children too. So I decided to demolish the ‘new-fake’ part of the old courtyard building and add a really new building next to it to make ‘the real’ very obvious.
JVDW What about the second very clear aspect?
MA In China we often talk about our cultural past, about our over 6,000-year-long history. But how does this relate to me personally? This positioning is a significant topic for me, as is finding out its relationship with contemporary design. The second aspect was, how I could bring inspiring moments, thoughts, even philosophies from the old into a new space for this kindergarten.
JVDW How did these aspects translate into your design?
MA I imagined children growing up in an environment that would contribute to their idea of ‘real’ – in a kindergarten developed on the spatial qualities of a Beijing courtyard house: its core emptiness, its trees, an abundance of open space and air. That, combined with an accessible roof that allows for imagination… In essence, an environment for children to discover how to see history and to define their own relationship with history.
JVDW In Europe many kindergartens can be understood as ‘spatial translations’ of the educational philosophy they accommodate. To what degree was the school’s philosophy leading in your design, in addition to what you just described?
MA Our client has built many schools in China. But given the context of the existing buildings on the site, they were open to something special and different. I believe children are often controlled too much. We chose to combine the existing ordered, organised nature of the courtyard with a new building that has a large degree of freedom. Freedom on the roof for children to run around and play. Freedom under the roof, in an interior without classrooms.
JVDW It intrigues me how the design blurs boundaries and has many ‘dialogues’ between interior and exterior, old and new, ground and sky and formal and informal spaces, but was freedom as a concept difficult to convince a client about?
MA Well, the open floor plan became a recurring discussion. Our client had never realised this before. We had to address practical issues like noise control and how to avoid creating too much distraction for children so that they would not lose their concentration. But eventually, we were able to convince our client with this free open environment and natural atmosphere.
JVDW You mentioned nature before. Can you elaborate on this idea, does it include topics like nature inclusiveness, circular building and, for example, sustainable design?
MA For me, nature is more of a philosophical construct. I consider nature being the ‘soul’ of a space. In this design, the ‘soul’ is derived from the spatial qualities of the existing courtyard building. The new addition adds to these qualities with its circular courtyards and trees. The essence of the design is about the relation between people, open space and nature. I believe this is more relevant than just applying new materials or high technology.
JVDW Arguably the most important question: do have any idea how the children experience your design?
MA They never told me but they seem to enjoy it! And I’ve met several parents who told me their children are very happy there. Some parents even told me they’d wish to have attended a kindergarten like this. That’s a big compliment! Me too, I would have loved to attend this kindergarten myself!
Site area: 9,725m2
Floor area: 10,778m2
Roof play space: 3,500m2
Building height: 21.1m
Architect MAD Architects
Client YueCheng Group
Executive architect China Academy of Building Research
Structural and mechanical engineer China Academy of Building Research
Facade construction Beijing Jangho Curtain Wall System Engineering Co
Interior designer MAD Architects and Supercloud Studio
Landscape architect ECOLAND Planning and Design Corporation