Tao Hua Yuan

Michael Webb   •  Photography by Nirut Benjabanpot • November 21, 2017

Photos: Tao Hua Yuan

Tao Hua Yuan, a minimalist, members only tea house located in a forest two hours by car from Nanjing, China is a contemporary expression of an age-old tradition. For centuries, scholars and retired administrators would entertain friends in stylized gardens, listening to musicians and reading poetry while savoring bowls of tea. To recapture that spirit, Hong Kong firm CL3 Architects, in collaboration with local firm Z.S. Design, was commissioned to create the interior of a concrete shell. The project fused East and West, old and new. “We wanted to promote the Chinese culture of  tea drinking, utilizing a quiet zen aesthetic to bring tranquillity to the space,” says Michelle Yuan, project planner, design coordinator, and the owner’s representative.

An exclusive hotel will soon be added to the site, but for now, the tea house is a destination in itself. “We always try to respect the local culture, while introducing contemporary notions of comfort,” explains CL3 founder William Lim. “Here, we eliminated ornament and relied on lighting, materials, and the relationship with nature to create a soothing experience.”

While at Cornell, Lim wrote his thesis on Chinese architecture so he was familiar with the elements that compose it. A circular opening alludes to the moon gates that frame vistas in historic buildings and gardens. A row of six massive scholar rocks, fantastically eroded by rushing streams, are lined up on a reflective surface to evoke water, dividing the teahouse into semiprivate zones. Low tables with floor cushions for seating and fabric-covered light pedants refer back to the furnishings of the Ming Dynasty.

From the outside, Tao Hua Yuan is a reticent composition of rectangles that complement the verticality of the trees that surround it. Within, the rooms are lofty, and tall windows frame views of the forest. Lim has employed a few materials that provide a visual and sensory contrast: polished marble for solidity, dark wood ridged and cut to animate the walls, and bamboo for the floors. Sliding screens enclose a private dining room.

Custom-designed wood chairs and pedestal tables are used in the main dining area, together with upholstered banquettes. Ink wash paintings are strategically placed to provide another demonstration of how Chinese artists have embraced nature and used it to create a world of their own making. In this oasis of calm and elegance, the frantic bustle of the cities feels very remote.