AMERICAN MASTER BUILDER Philip Johnson thought Mies van der Rohe's plans for a glass house wouldn't work. You needed solid walls running up against the glass, he said, which would ruin the whole idea. Farnsworth House, van der Rohe's transcendent glass wonder in Plano, Illinois, however, showed that glass houses can work (and changed Johnson's mind). More a temple than a house, its consistency and its relationship with the nature around it made it a success, an important one in the history of architecture. American-Chinese lawyer, gallerist and restaurateur Handel Lee was inspired by this purity of form when he decided to build his house near the satellite town of Huairou, northeast of Beijing. Lee already had a house out by the Qing tombs, but it was too far from the city. In 1998, a friend introduced him to this area. And, although he was immediately taken with it, it took two years of negotiations before construction of his house could begin. Lee is no stranger to renovation - previous projects include the Shanghai retail and dining emporium Three on the Bund, the Courtyard restaurant, RBL in Beijing and the forthcoming revamped embassy compound, the Legation Quarter. Lee enlisted the help of photo artist and designer Gao Bo and asked him to look at Mies van der Rohe's building, the work of architect Shigeru Ban (he particularly liked Shigeru Ban's Curtain Wall House in Tokyo) and the art of painter and calligrapher Pu Xinyu (1896-1963) . 'It took a year-and-a-half of sitting around talking and drinking just to come up with the conceptual design,' he says. The house they came up with is self-consciously man-made, angular and minimalist; a stark contrast to the surrounding countryside. Lee was most inspired by Pu Xinyu, best known for his elegant landscapes. (Lee's mother, an artist, studied under Pu.) 'There are pine trees right behind the house that look like a traditional landscape painting from the Northern Song dynasty - rocky, not overly green,' Lee says. 'That mountain looked just like those paintings and I wanted to build a house like that - where you have the little guy within the whole painting. A single, unassuming point of nature, not dominating it,' says Lee. 'It's a floating house set inside a layered, larger landscape painting. It's a modest house, and it has a lot to do with the concept of man and nature,' says Lee. This effect extends to the surrounding hills, where three stonemason brothers set up a quarry 175 years ago. Local people have been cutting rock for 700 years. Although overgrown, you can still see where they cut the granite. The approach to Lee's house is quite an experience. Through the challenging back roads along the edge of a dry lake and then up a gully, the first part of the building you see is a glass promontory hanging over the river. It looks like the setting for a film. 'It's so unexpected, moving through all the persimmon trees with the pheasants running around. Then you look across and all of a sudden you see this glimmering white box that looks like a house, floating there,' says Lee. The spare, pure design of Lee's home is evident everywhere. In the garden, water flows over a marble table, reflecting the clean lines of the house. Nine-metre high walls enclose another section, forcing you to look up to the sky. As well as the glass walls of the promontory, the building uses a lot of concrete. The walls are largely white and smooth, but in places, Lee took a skin of two or three centimetres off the reinforced concrete. 'It's quite brutal, but with a softness that allows it to blend with nature,' Lee says. Inside the house, which is spread over nearly 4,300 sq ft, the Bauhaus theme is continued with simple, handsome, unfussy furniture. Walking in, the first thing the visitor sees is a sculpture of an elegant figure, counterpointed in gold against white walls. 'It's a monk, from Thailand. It's important that the figure is human. The monk shows what it is to be human, what we go through to feel the pain of life,' he says. Lee has set aside a section of the house as a gallery, which, fittingly, contains a Pu Xinyu landscape, a family painting of Fu Heng (one of Lee's forebears who was grand secretary to Qian Long and brother of the emperor's first wife) and a video installation by Patty Chang. The odd one out in the display is what Lee calls a 'hokey picture' of a mountain in Switzerland, given to him by the people of a rural Chinese village, where he paid for a school to be built. In another part of the house is a collection of sculpted heads, including Buddha heads of iron and stone, a smiling face carved out of rock which Lee found in an antiques market and a series of wooden masks from West Timor. 'They're all heads because this is the part of the house where we think,' he says. The house was finished in 2001, although Lee says it has never really been completed. 'I'm always fine-tuning things, adding stuff, like the lawn and the stables. The house is like a conceptual painting, and it affects people in different ways. It's a great party house, but you can also be quiet there.'