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Rhapsody in grey: a courtyard community by Zhang Bing

Restoring and renewing historic architecture in China creates a shared space between old buildings 

The slopes of Purple Mountain – a nature reserve in the eastern suburbs of Nanjing – are thick with monuments of great national significance: the tomb complex established by the first Ming emperor, for instance, which lost its wooden roof to the Taiping Rebellion in the mid 19th century; the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, father of modern China; and the villa of Soong Mei-ling, wife of General Chiang Kai-shek.

These relics testify to the tumultuous history of China, which has long hinged on this ancient city.

site plan mbd

site plan mbd

Site plan with restored buildings in yellow and reconstructed buildings in red

Local architect Zhang Bing has restored and reworked a number of buildings in this area dating from the Republic of China (1912-49): a group of low grey brick buildings with grey tiled roofs nestling beneath the wooded slopes of the mountain. The perforated brick of the extant structures has been extended to the new additions in a wild variety of patterns. In some instances the bricks have been laid diagonally, creating triangular apertures alternately oriented point-up or point-down, while in other places headers have been stacked to create stepped diamond-shaped gaps. This riotous celebration of the brickie’s art helps to create uniformity while leavening the even tonality of the materials.

Finally, interstitial landscaping, which comprises a courtyard with low curved walls enclosing semicircular gardens and a street terminating in a circular ‘moon gate’, brings the disparate elements together. This rhapsody in grey brickwork contrasts sharply with the greenery surrounding the complex and testifies to the possibility of restoring and reusing the built heritage of China for contemporary use without destroying the traces of the past. 

tiled wall 1

tiled wall 1

Selection of brick configurations

typical floor plan2

typical floor plan2

Typical floor plan

A Courtyard Community

Architect: Zhang Bing, Atelier Groundwork Architecture

Project team: Zhang Bing, Dai Hang

Structural engineer: Meng Xia, Zhang Bing

Photographs: Courtesy of Zhang Bing