The siheyuan, or courtyard house, took root 800 years ago in a budding Beijing. A home with a single entrance, it features discrete single-storey structures that face one or more courtyards. With its back turned to the city outside, each building assumes a sole function. Arch Studio took a 200-sq-m replica of a Qing dynasty siheyuan, only a few years old, and gave it a literal twist to layer history with modernity and the man-made with the organic. The result, known as Twisting Courtyard, is as pragmatic as it is poetic.

Arch Studio’s Han Wenqiang tucked white auxiliary spaces – kitchen, bath, storage, heating and air conditioning – inside the undulations, but left grey reception and dining rooms facing the courtyard. Both indoor and outdoor floors are paved with grey brick, diminishing the distinction between the two. The path appears to flow under the large glazed faces of two buildings, which ‘sink’ into its surface as it rises to form a canted wall and then the roof. The sections that crest upwards are structured with a steel keel and steel plate. Materials used to cover this skeleton include insulation, a waterproofing layer, 3-cm-thick paving bricks and transparent epoxy resin.

Floors are paved with grey clay bricks in the reception area and beyond, blurring the boundary between indoors and out.

‘The siheyuan is a product of traditional Chinese etiquette,’ Han says. ‘It emphasizes respect for hierarchy and order and for the coexistence of humans and nature, while reflecting a traditional way of life and behavioural norms.’ In the past, the relationship of one siheyuan building to another corresponded to the roles of the inhabitants: the main house served as the living room and residence of ‘the master’, while the wings became houses for his sons. Kitchen, storage and daughters’ rooms were usually separated by a secondary gate, and the style, scale, materials and even height of the foundation were related to the status of the master.

As people move around, the landscape changes constantly

Han’s twist of this architectural type is both notional and physical. Each building can be adapted, via integrated furnishings, to different uses. When the mattress is removed from the floor of the bedroom, a desk rises from the wooden platform beneath it to become a small office or tea salon.

The kitchen is inserted discreetly beneath the undulating pathway, which rises from floor to ceiling.

Twisting Courtyard blurs and lightens the categorical character, formality and ‘solemn’ (as Han puts it) hierarchy of the historical siheyuan by removing the impression of orthogonality and order, and replacing it with a visually and functionally flowing landscape. ‘The space has a sense of beauty, simplicity and elegance where curves cross straight lines,’ the architect says, ‘and as people move around, the landscape changes constantly.’