Old farmhouses reborn in shadow of Great Wall

Home dubbed Ironstone breaks tradition with north-facing windows but respects vernacular Chinese design and structure's rustic past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 5:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 5:04am

About 10 million visitors crowd the steep steps of the Great Wall every year, but few get the kind of views that John and Dinah Chong Watkins enjoy from Ironstone, their weekend home in Beigou village. From their second-storey loft, the ancient wall spreads out across a spine of mountains before disappearing completely from sight.

But from the road, there is little to see. A heavy walnut door, unassuming granite blocks and a mass of green bush hide the 800 sq metre home. Step beyond the gate, past the sturdy shed, however, and your eye is quickly swept up to a red-brick home that references the surrounding farmhouses without being a slavish reproduction.

Ironstone is just one of 30 homes designed by Jim Spear, a developer with a propensity for blending East and West, the natural and man-made, and the modern and ancient in one space.

While Ironstone recalls the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright - especially in the copious use of floor-to-ceiling windows and spare, naturalistic design - Spear retains respect for vernacular Chinese design, keeping as many elements of these rustic farmhouses as possible.

It is these features, seen in the recently published Great Wall Style - a compendium of his renovated farmhouses, all near the wall - that persuaded the Watkins to invest in a home that will eventually be their main residence in China after retirement. Until then, Ironstone functions as a weekender, a gathering place and a Christian retreat.

"I was taking my parents up to the Great Wall [in May 2007] and I saw a couple of these houses being built on the way," says John. Immediately, the style and location of these red brick and white stone houses attracted me."

Unaware of the architect, the Watkins lunched at the Schoolhouse, a restaurant and art studio housed in an abandoned primary school, and asked staff who had designed these stylish Mutianyu homes.

It turned out that the proprietors of the Schoolhouse were none other than Spear and his wife, Tang Liang. "Jim showed me two of the houses [he designed]," says John Watkins, "and I made a decision right then and there that I wanted one."

Watkins retells the incident in front of a massive stone and granite fireplace that is the focal point of the main wing of Ironstone. "I just told Jim to let me know when another house became available," he says.

Months later, the couple received a call that another place was for sale, not in Mutianyu but in Beigou, a tiny settlement of chestnut farmers in the shadow of the Great Wall.

Ironstone started from a brace of humble farmhouses at the edge of the village. One was completely abandoned, the other housed a family ready to leave for Beijing. "It was very, very rustic," recalls Dinah. "They cooked inside the home on an open flame, so that the wooden beams overhead were all black from the exhaust."

They kept those blackened beams. What Spear could preserve, he did. Despite all outward appearance, these dingy old farmhouses had strong bones that could be revamped in a playful, modern way.

"We spent two days, and I told [Spear] what I wanted. He took that, and based on his vision and what could and couldn't be done, came up with a design. It wasn't even a blueprint." Things could, and did, get revamped on the fly.

Most of the craftsmen were local villagers and veterans of Spear's other home projects. "They took pride in their work, and you can see it in the house," says Dinah. That is evident when tracing the masonry of the brickwork and examining the wooden joints of the fireplace.

Ironstone is generally divided up between the old farmhouses and a new wing with floor-to-ceiling windows that afford views of the Great Wall. The two areas are connected by an underground gallery composed of the same bricks used in Great Wall reconstructions. But to see the real wall was to do something very un-Chinese - orient the windows north.

The original farmhouses had no north-facing windows. To capture more views of the wall, new windows had to be bored into the north side.

There is also a clever framing device used in the hallway fronting the farmhouse. One window opens to lush greenery, the opposing window frames a stone wall. Instead of blocking nature, Spear allowed the stone wall to come inside, and a couple of times a year a stream of water falls into a grate placed at the end of the underground gallery.

John also spearheaded a few ideas. He thought the use of steel left the interiors feeling cold, and insisted on covering the steel beams of the loft in wood. This warmed interiors, and gave the new wing a relaxed, inviting atmosphere.

John also wanted the fireplaces to be statement pieces, and rejected a few early designs with an almost teasing: "Jim, you can do better than this."

"The only thing I would change now," says John, looking at the beams of the wood and steel ceiling, "is to bring the roof down by a few metres." Winters are cold, and the open space of the new wing tends to get chilly.

The name Ironstone does not just refer to materials, but also to a Biblical verse. As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. It seems a fitting metaphor for the collaboration between Watkins and Spear in designing and building Ironstone.

Photos: Architecture by Jim Spear, Images by Robert McLeod, Copyright 2013 Beijing Mutianyu Schoolhouse Restaurant. Used with permission