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China's Latest Hip Houses Recall the Homes of Emperors

The country’s wealthy have long preferred Western-style villas, but they’re increasingly eyeing the luxurious courtyard houses of the past.

A photo posted by Mahesh Mike Patel (@mikepatelgroup) on

In China, status and wealth present themselves in many ways: in fancy cars, in brand-name clothing, and in opulent suburban homes that mimic the “McMansions” of Europe and the U.S. Oversized houses inspired by the chateaus of France and the villas of Spain—often hidden inside gated neighborhoods and filled with swanky amenities—are just some of the favored styles among Chinese elites.

But not everyone is looking to the West. The reportedly most expensive home ever listed on China’s mainland—which is going for a whopping billion Chinese yuans, or $154 million—looks nothing like a typical American dream home. Sold recently in the picturesque city of Suzhou and dubbed “utopia” in Mandarin, the 72,000-square-foot estate has 32 bedrooms, 32 bathrooms, and sits on a private island with a massive lakeshore garden. It resembles the siheyuan, traditional courtyard houses once inhabited by the wealthy aristocrats of ancient China.

Most of China’s super-rich still prefer Western-style mansions or buying homes abroad, but according to CNN, they’re increasingly eyeing the grandeur of traditional-style homes. Industry insiders speaking to CNN chalk it up to China’s evolving taste, fueled by the desire for something unique, something to distinguish themselves from the middle class. Indeed, in a country that embraces its copycat architecture, owning yet another cookie-cutter Western mansion, however luxurious it may be, just might be too weak a status symbol.

Courtyard houses, which date back to the Zhou dynasty, were once popular in part because of their symbolism, says Yu-ngok Lo, a California-based architect from Macau who has done extensive research on the courtyard houses of Beijing. Their centrally located courtyards represented the coexistence of humans and nature. Their symmetrical design and divided layout, with master bedrooms pointed North, reflected Confucianist ideology and the country’s social hierarchy. And the thick walls enclosing the estates created a sense of tranquility. “It has that sense of dignity in it,” Lo says.

The style fell out of favor starting during the Cultural Revolution, as the government pushed the idea ridding China of its old imperial system. “There was, in the ‘80s, a mad rush for modernization, a sense that Chinese people needed to catch up to other countries,” says Nancy Berliner, a curator of Chinese art at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The resurgence in popularity of courtyard houses is partly a result of changing attitudes about Chinese history and identity. Both Berliner and Lo agree that more Chinese are embracing older traditions as a proud part of their identity. “There's always been rhythms in Chinese culture, whether it be in painting or architecture,” Berliner says. “Even though these ... might look new to us, it's typical for Chinese to go back and imitate the old.”

Yet there’s an irony to this trend: These newly built utopian estates are modern versions of the same kind of aging homes being torn down in China’s disappearing villages, to make way for China’s continual urban development. They’re the same kind that cultural preservationists have been struggling to save from developers with an eye on the valuable land they sit on.

Lo hopes that the revival of interest in China’s traditional housing will further push support for preservation efforts, but he warns that these new estates could be yet another example of copycat architecture. “There's a difference between just copying the components of a courtyard house and preserving [history]” he says.

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