In an attempt to revitalize a rural Chinese village, an architecture firm designed a leisure retreat that takes visitors into the distant past. Using the ancient cave dwellings of the Zhangjiakou prefecture as inspiration, Studio A()VOID created a collective of tall brick pods called “Grotto Retreat Xiyaotou” in the country’s Hebei province.
“The design concept starts with the radical difference between the rural and urban interpersonal networks,” explains the Macau-based Studio A()VOID team, adding that it “reinterprets the native cave dwellings of the site as vertical ‘grottos’.” The 23-foot-tall huts are laid out irregularly on a 13-by-19-foot grid, each calculated on the length-to-width ratio of the original cave structures.
Composed of double-layered gray brick, the buildings curve organically into gentle rectangles. Individual bricks protrude asymmetrically along the outsides, too, marking the levels where scaffolding was used in the construction process.
Each pod is topped by a giant skylight, and together with the uber-tall ceilings, they encourage visitors to appreciate the verticality of the space. The access to natural light all day long also recalls the agricultural roots of Xiyaotou village. The studio says it “contextualizes residents to rurality’s rhythm of ‘working from dawn to dusk” and “exposes their sensitivity to the sun’s trajectory.”
In the winter, the double-thick walls use those sunrays to help warm the grottos from the average outside temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When it gets hotter in the summer, heat can escape through the pods’ strategically-placed windows, and through the chimney effect of each unit’s elongated geometry. The windows and doors of each cave structure are composed of pre-weathered steel that pushes out from the brick facade. Individual units are connected on the second story by a raised wooden walkway.
“By flowing the bridge of connectivity in between the private grottos, the design attempts to realize a community in which public and private coexist,” the studio explains, adding that “it serves as the keynote for the layout of the corridor structure and supports the new building complex in a spiritual sense.”
The bridge is held up by pine columns and snakes in between each dwelling to provide a link to all the units. The elevated sidewalk also gives walkers a birds’ eye view of the surrounding landscape, including a dense grove of trees, a nearby shoreline, and the “aboriginal architecture of Yu County.” The empty spaces below the boardwalk are designed to provide room for hosting workshops, exhibitions, and even markets.
The grotto sanctuary, completed this year under the direction of lead architect Yun Hon, was created as part of a larger Chinese initiative to rejuvenate rural “hollow” villages across the country like Xiyaotou, most of which have seen conditions deteriorate as residents have migrated to newer areas. The idea is to transform abandoned communities into destination places for tourists, with unique accommodations, local cuisines, and fun activities. Grotto Retreat Xiyaotou’s compilation of clustered units was designed to be flexible to these types of future needs and more.
Studio A( )VOID characterizes itself as a design group that “celebrates the emptiness and possibilities of a void.” They “design to allow capacities for randomness and surprises in different aspects of a project, so involved parties are encouraged to participate in this controlled mayhem.”