Feng Shui dictated the layout of this bright residence in Beijing

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Architectural Digest.

The high windowless walls that surround a house in the Beijing area offer little clue to the treasure it contains. “When most people approach the narrow roadway and see these walls, they assume that the interior is dark and narrow,” says architect and interior designer Wang Ta-Chun, of Matsuoka Wang Architects. “But when they enter the house, they are surprised at how bright and big it is.”

About an hour’s drive from the Forbidden City, the residence is part of King’s Villa, a development of 56 homes near the foothills of Xi Shan, or West Mountain. It was inspired by the traditional Beijing siheyuan, which first appeared in China nearly 2,000 years ago. Once the ultimate symbol of wealth, the siheyuan, a multi-family residence, is designed with a central courtyard surrounded by four buildings. A large, no-frills exterior wall surrounds the entire resort, while the courtyard, often with a garden and terrace, serves as a family hangout. Facing a wave of shaves in Beijing’s rapidly modernizing cityscape, Siheyuan is considered a model for most Chinese architectural styles.

As with most traditional Chinese designs, feng shui dictated the layout. “In Beijing, according to feng shui, the house must always face south,” says Wang, who studied architecture at Columbia University and is now based in Taipei. “The living room and, more importantly, the master bedroom should be in the southern part of the house. And most of the windows open onto the courtyard.” Wang, who considers himself a modernist, points out that modernist architects and ancient siheyuan builders had a common goal: to maximize natural light. “The light reflecting from the courtyard throughout the interior was the main consideration for this project,” he elaborates. “For the interior decoration, we have used this light in a very interesting way.”

The dining room is the most dramatic example. A large rectangular glass box with windows 26 feet high on three sides, it juts out into the courtyard almost like a peninsula, bordered by a shallow pool. During the day, the sunlight reflecting off the glistening white exterior wall of the pool water creates magical shadows on the table and chairs. At night, the room is lit like a giant lantern.

The traditional layout of the house and its Western-inspired lines offered both challenges and opportunities for experimentation. “We wanted the interior to be what we call modern luxury but highlighted with Chinese elements,” Wang said. “So we used local materials like silk, white han-bai-yu stone and coconut from Hainan Island in southern China. The han-bai-yu stone, used in the coating of ground, is the same white stone used for the white lions carved at the Forbidden City, it is a very traditional stone. ” Its attractive reflective quality – the polished surface reflects the rich chocolate-brown sandalwood details – was a requirement for many of the materials Wang selected.

Elsewhere, elegant decorative cushions with brilliant reflections are neatly placed on chairs and sofas. And on a living room wall, Wang hung huge panels of stretched gray silk. Since the walls at the front of a Siheyuan-style house contain no windows, this silk, with its luxurious shimmer, draws light into the room like a window.

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