Li Xiaodong's prize-winning library brings tourism to Jiaojiehe village

Architect's energy-saving design improves local business

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 November, 2014, 5:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 November, 2014, 5:26pm

When it comes to branching out, Professor Li Xiaodong seems to have cornered the market. Li, of Beijing's Li Xiaodong Atelier, received the inaugural Moriyama RAIC International Prize in October for a building whose radical design could have his fellow architects turning over a new leaf.

The Liyuan Library, in Jiaojiehe village near Beijing, is perhaps the biggest tree house on earth. It won the C$100,000 (HK$685,680) prize, which was established by the Canadian-Japanese architect Raymond Moriyama and the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada.

It was described by the jury as "transformative, inspired ... and emblematic of the human values of respect and inclusiveness".

But since opening in May 2012, the Liyuan Library has had an impact on the lives of the people of Jiaojiehe far beyond anything its creator anticipated.

"The library looks beautiful in all seasons, and every weekend it attracts 400 to 500 people, mostly from Beijing," says Li, 51.

"Beijing is about a 90-minute drive away, three hours by public transport, so it's like a weekend retreat. It doesn't appeal directly to the villagers, but it has brought in business. They've opened a lot of restaurants now; before, there were no visitors."

A place to stay was always likely to follow a place to eat. "Some visitors stay overnight," says Li. "There are little hotels in the village now as well. It's all new business.

"The people are farmers, and in the beginning they were very suspicious. They thought I had no interest in the project, or that I was joking. But when I showed them the sketches, they realised it was for real."

Li was presented with the award by Moriyama himself, on the latter's 85th birthday, in Toronto. The award was not intended to rival architecture's most famous prize.

"The Pritzker Architecture Prize is for individuals, for lifetime achievement and is annual," says Li. "The Moriyama is for a single project and is awarded every two years, which gives time for quality work."

The winning building must have been in use for at least two years - which, in the library's case, has proved ample time to garner other honours, including a 2012 World Architecture Festival award, and to exert a positive influence on its users, as well as Jiaojiehe's businessmen.

"The library is running well because everyone has a feeling of ownership. They can take one book away, but are asked to donate two or three. It's not a lending library, people just go there to read," says Li.

The library consists of one large room with pine fixtures and fittings. Stepped platforms lead to elevated seating areas and "perches" for reading.

"The library is general subject and multilingual. It's very appealing, because everyone feels at home - people even take off their shoes," says Li.

"It's only open two days [a week] and staffed by village volunteers. TV series and commercials have been shot there, and the money is used to pay the staff and maintain the building.

"So it's not just the design, construction or appearance that makes it a prize-winning project, it's the operation of it too - the whole package."

That package has its roots in Li's architectural philosophy, which he calls "reflexive regionalism", characterised by "a constant dialogue with reality, with a site's true condition, not just superimposing something onto a landscape. You have to deal with the location, the programme, the users, everything", he says.

The library is general subject and multilingual. It's appealing, everyone feels at home - people even take off their shoes
Li Xiaodong

Li's creed found an echo in the outlook of the Hong Kong-based Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust, which "aspires to use design to improve the lives of the rural population in China by supporting projects that serve as prototypes for ... sustainable development" and which put up the library's one million yuan (HK$1.2 million) budget.

"The trust asked me to undertake a countryside project, and I chose the village after visiting friends who were staying there," says Li. "I talked to the village head, and he said I could choose a site. Construction started in March 2011 and was finished by November. The library has a steel structure so it was very easy. When that was done, it was just the interior, windows and twigs, that was all.

"The branches and twigs, can be seen in the village, in streets and courtyards. That's where the idea for the building's appearance came from. I bought the wood from the farmers, who burn it to heat their houses.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the materials can be recycled and the way the branches were attached to the building was very simple, so in four or five years it will be easy to replace old wood with new," he says.

"I thought I could use such material, go back to nature and not be too formal. Normally, I try to use local materials: stone, rocks, water, timber, because a building has to settle into its site and be part of the environment, not stand out from it.

"Nowadays architecture often pretends to be something else, that it's really 'out there', and it's difficult to understand. But this building tries to show that architecture can be easy; it's trying to project an attitude. The material I used is normal, everyone knows what it is."

Less obvious is the means by which the compact library uses its environment to save energy.

"The light is natural, so the library is closed at 4pm. It has no power supply, so it has to air condition itself, which is why it uses the temperature of the water [of the adjoining lake] for cooling," Li says.

"The roof is double-glazed, and hot air from the roof meets cool air from ground level, then moves through the building and out of the windows at human height, so you feel the breeze.

"In summer the temperature inside is the same as sitting outside in the shadows; in winter, the heat of the sun is trapped inside and it's five degrees higher than outside. The idea is to use the concept and philosophy of technology in the design, not separate them.

"This is something more ambitious than projects I've done before," he says.

Guaranteeing such natural harmony in Li's current enterprise might prove more testing, but his principles will not be compromised.

"I'm working on a high-density Shenzhen accommodation project for people who are 20 to 30 years old. We don't have this kind of housing for immigrants looking for jobs," says Li, adding that he often has to invest in his unusual projects himself.

"They don't have a place to live, except maybe shared apartments. They don't have a place to call home, so they don't identify with the city. They need some affordable private space. It may be small, but it can still be comfortable," he says.