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August 29, 2010

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Courtyard house a traveler's haven

A former foreign correspondent settles in a classic courtyard home and fills it with treasures from her travels. Patsy Yang reportsA relaxed home is whatever you want it to be, and such is the case with Barbara Alighiero, who pampers herself with soothing colors, exotic upholstery, curios and lots of books in a traditional siheyuan courtyard close to the Drum Tower in Beijing.

Beijing's courtyards that open off the small hutongs (lanes) still house some residents but the vast majority were torn down in recent years to make way for real estate development. Many people left the narrow lanes where their families lived for generations.

Alighiero, director of Italian Cultural Institute in Beijing, rent this 400-square-meter courtyard house in 2008.

It was an extraordinary find: Siheyuans are especially prized because they are perfect squares with equal sides, a symmetry highly prized in Chinese culture.

A siheyuan (courtyard house) is a historical type of residence that was commonly found in northern China, most famous in Beijing. The name literally means a courtyard surrounded by four buildings.

"My criteria for a house are that it has to be full of light, in the center of the town and possibly with a garden or a terrace. This little siheyuan is perfect.

"Above me, I have only the sky and a tree gives a beautiful shade in the garden," she said.

"My only worry is that the destruction of old Beijing will go on. The old neighborhood is in danger of destruction and it is important to keep at least part of Beijing as it used to be," she added.

Alighiero won a scholarship for one year in Beijing in 1975 as one of the first Italian students to go to China after the two countries have established diplomatic relations.

Back to China in 1981, she has lived in Beijing for 20 years as a correspondent and bureau chief for the Italian News Agency ANSA.

At the time (1981-2001), journalists were still required to live inside the compounds for diplomats. There was no choice.

She came back in 2008, after covering wars in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan for the same agency.

Alighiero took a month to renovate this courtyard, got rid of some kitsch lights and filled in her best-buys and a clutch of mementoes.

"I didn't make any change in the layout. I just wanted to keep the house as it was and I prefer very conservative renovations," Alighiero said.

The siheyuan courtyard dwelling is a typical old Beijing structure, designed to be enclosed and inward-facing. All four sides face the courtyard and are protected from the harsh climate. It offers space, comfort and quiet privacy. All the rooms around the courtyard have large windows facing onto the yard.

The siheyuan scenario has a bewitching charm redolent of the rich flavor of Beijing life.

Alighiero's courtyard home comprises a mix of unusual shapes, textures and vibrant colors, blending the Beijing of the past with its more worldly, East-meets-West interior. It has tons of detail and Old World charm. The two halves set the tone for a relaxing, warmly welcoming experience.

She has turned the entire place into an oasis of easy-going style, and the secret was undoubtedly to put something warm and welcoming at its heart.

Each room is brimful with her favorite things, from Ming-style cabinets to elaborately embroidery pieces from Uzbekistan. "I'm not an architect. I don't design areas. I simply put things as I like. Maybe tomorrow I'll change," she said.

Shelves full of books and CDs, a few carpets, a vibrant red two-seat couch and abundant light bring her favorite reading room to life and instantly establish a restful, delightfully decadent atmosphere.

And not all the soft furnishings have to be fitted or structured.

A simple room is given a sense of relaxed sensuous style thanks to the rugs of different shapes and patterns casually covering the wooden floor, and magazines placed on a stone statue that functions as a small side table.

Obviously the homeowner looked for different pieces that coordinate without matching, which makes the reading room more relaxing and casual rather than stiff and formal.

And she creates the opportunity to change a room's arrangement whenever she fancies or when she acquires something new. "My books and music are here. I'm often in this room when I'm at home," she said.

Alighiero loves to inject her own personality into a room and make it spring into life by displaying small collections of objects she found appealing. In the master bedroom and study, an eclectic assortment of possessions ensures that the decoration of a room does not take itself too seriously.

Classical touches like the Ming-style cabinets sit surprisingly well with exotic upholstery, sensual fabric throws and family photographs.

The framed family photographs and other images that have special meaning decorate the bedroom and add a more personal note.

Simplicity is the key when decorating the dining room, with a proper placement of simple, elegant Chinese-style dining table and chairs to achieve optimal effects.

The dining room is a charming example of Oriental style that amazes friends and guests.

The 200-square-meter central courtyard provides an ideal space for outdoor living. Beautiful flowers and plants as well as outdoor seating turn it into a large, open-air living room, drawing heaven and earth closer to the homeowner's heart.

For Alighiero, it is also a wonderful, soothing area in which to create intimate settings for dining and relaxation. "Home is a place to be together with family and friends, so it has to be nice and welcoming," she said.

Alighiero's old Beijing courtyard reminds us that while we do not have much control over the architectural elements, we can make the most of the decorative effect to ensure the house has a relaxed style.


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