Canadian Architect

Feature

Moriyama RAIC International Prize

November 1, 2014
by Canadian Architect

Project Liyuan Library, Jiaojiehe, China
Architect Atelier Li Xiaodong
Text and Photos Li Xiaodong

This project is a modest addition to the small village of Jiaojiehe, just under a two-hour drive from busy Beijing urban life. On the one hand, it forms a modern programmatic complement to the village by adding a small library and reading space within a setting of quiet contemplation. On the other hand, we wanted to use architecture to enhance appreciation of the site’s natural landscape qualities.

Instead of adding a new building inside the village centre, we chose this particular site in the nearby mountains, a pleasant five-minute walk from the community’s core. In doing so, we provided a setting for clear thoughts for those consciously making the effort to head for the reading room.

Because of the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding context, our intervention is modest in its outward expression. We can’t compete with nature’s splendour. The building blends into the landscape through the choice of delicate materials and the careful placement of the building volume.

Material choice is crucial in harmonizing with the regional context. After analyzing the local material characteristics in the village, we found large amounts of locally sourced wooden sticks piled around each house. The villagers gather these sticks all year round to fuel their cooking stoves. So we decided to use this ordinary material in an extraordinary way, cladding the building in familiar textures in a way that is strikingly sensitive.

The final design concept is for a building that acts as a carefully placed frame that contains a filtered interior world. The exterior appearance is a modest addition to the natural surroundings, in which the building helps to direct the experience of the visitor. It frames views towards the surrounding landscape and acts as an embracing shelter. In order to minimize the impact of the building on its surroundings, the architecture carefully integrates the existing topographic and seasonal characteristics into a lasting sustainable complement. For me, sustainability needs to be socially agreeable, environmentally friendly, operationally and functionally efficient, economically viable and locally processed.

The interior of the building has a very expressive character. It is made spatially diverse by using stairs and subtle level changes to create distinct places. It frames views towards the surrounding landscape and acts as an embracing shelter. The building is fully glazed to allow for a completely daylit space. The wooden sticks temper the bright light and spread it evenly throughout the space to create a perfect reading ambience.

In order to let the library participate as a place for social knowledge exchange, our suggestion was to not have a static collection of books. Instead, people are encouraged to bring two books when they visit, and take one back home. In this way, the small library becomes a living hub of knowledge, with a constantly updated collection.

The everchanging interior of the building extends to its exterior, as it evolves with its surroundings into a habitat for local flora and fauna. In this way, the skin of the building can be inhabited and becomes part of the local ecology.

Beijing has a harsh climate with very cold, dry winters (down to -20°C) and very hot, humid summers (up to +40°C), with intense sunlight. This normally requires advanced air-conditioning devices to control the interior climate. However, our library is disconnected from typical building infrastructure, and there is no electrical power. Instead, we relied on passive building systems and traditional knowledge to create a comfortable atmosphere. In summer, a clever system of openings stimulates natural air flow throughout the building with air that is chilled over the pond in front. In winter, these openings are kept largely closed, and the underlying glass box creates a greenhouse effect that warms the building during the day.

When I started this project, I was working pro bono with the local community on a design intervention that would initiate the regeneration process towards a qualitative village environment. Simultaneously, we hoped that this would bring new tourists to the village, providing a lasting means of raising local income. During this time, the Lu Qianshou Trust from Hong Kong contacted me, and wanted to provide funding to enable me to develop certain rural areas, as they had heard of similar self-initiated projects that I had successfully realized before.

Since its completion, the library has seen tremendous appreciation and usage by a wide variety of people. A new bus stop accommodates the frequent visits by thousands of people, including local villagers, tourists from the Beijing urban area, and many international visitors. Everybody is welcome to visit. As a professor, it’s great to have such a project so close to the university. I bring my students there every year at the start of the fall semester, to set the standard for their work to come.

Rather than a building as a discrete object, this project is about the relationship of a building to its surroundings and its role in serving the community.

Client Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust and Pan Xi | Architect Team Li Xiaodong, Liu Yayun, Hunag Chenwen, Pan Xi | Area 175 m2 | Budget $185,000 | Completion May 2012

Benny Kwok, Dalhousie University
I was cleaning out my room recently, and found a scrapbook I put together when I was in Grade 8. Flipping through the pages, I found a lot of spelling errors in my writing, some of my childhood memories, and also evidence of my thought process at the time. It described the attitude and feelings I had about my family, friends, education, and the career aspirations I had. When I got to the end, I found this passage that touched on what I wanted for my career:

“In the future, I hope that I can graduate from university and become a professional architect. In my [spare] time I can still contact my friends and go have a drink with them. While I’m alive, I really want to build my own house and be an honest, successful person.”

I have always known that I wanted to be an architect, but I have never asked myself the intention behind it. Is it for building my own house, or for the simple reason of creating a place where I can enjoy a drink with my friends and family?

Having had the opportunity to live in various cities at different stages in my life, I have been exposed to different built environments. From the crowded skyscrapers of Hong Kong to the quiet suburbs of Auckland, I have seen a contrast of building styles and city developments that are deeply tied to a place’s resources, technological advancements, economic necessity, cultural history and natural surroundings.

Architecture has continued to give me a lot of opportunities to travel around the world. It has led me from Vancouver on the West Coast to the other side of the country in Halifax, driven me to the bright lights of Tokyo and different parts of Japan, and across the Atlantic Ocean to various countries in Europe.

Through these experiences, I have discovered that while cultures are different and unique, there are a few common characteristics we can identify within them. We have the need for shelter when the weather gets rough, the need for indoor comfort when we want to rest, and the need for place-making for activities and rituals involved in our daily routines.

These characteristics are manifest in what we create as architecture. It not only becomes the spaces we inhabit, but also the language we use to share our culture and identities.

I was involved in a building workshop on Sandhornøy, an island located in the northern part of Norway, along with students from different part
s of the world. Rather than staying in local establishments, we stayed in military camps on site for the duration of the workshop. The intention of the workshop was to design and build a series of portable shelters called siidas (which means “meeting place” in the North Sami indigenous language) on an Arctic beach within a two-week period.

I worked in a group of five, with each of us having various levels of understanding of English, making it difficult to communicate from time to time. We spent hours on discussions, using drawings, sketches and models to help us illustrate our points. However, we could not make any progress on paper. We learned that the most effective method of working was to engage with the beach and draw around our bodies in the sand; to engage with the tools and materials by building our ideas to their true size. We were able to communicate by the act of doing, by using our bodies and actions as the words and sentences that we all understood as a common language. We accomplished something simple and beautiful: a place for people to gather and enjoy each other’s company, and a place that illustrates our culture, knowledge and identities.

The workshop at Sandhornøy was a truly amazing experience, where I learned things that were beyond the realm of architecture. Architecture should not be understood as an object, but rather as a process of what one of my professors calls “architecting.” It is a process in which we engage and therefore includes all our relationships—with each other, with materials, with tools and landscape. It includes our relationships with land and territory, wind, sun and rain; with water, animals and with words—the words we know and the words others say. When one can just let go and focus on these relationships, architecting becomes so magical, so entangled with people, their personalities, their personal relationships, and their cultural background and social upbringing.

When I ask myself why I want to be an architect, I believe I want to accomplish something more than what we associate with architecture. Architecture should be a realization of an original thought, or an architectural idea. It should improve urban environments, and be energy-efficient and sustainable.

However, it should also be something more. It should be an act of architecting, a language of communication, and an opportunity for us to forge and strengthen relationships we share with one another. I believe we can create a better place for each other with all that stems from the rudimentary ideas I had when I was young: to build my own house and create a place where I can enjoy a drink with my friends and family.

Shu yin Wu, University of Waterloo
A poet uses a pen to make space speak the unspeakable. As an architecture student, I like to trace a pen upon the skin of the city, hearing, for example, the sound of a continuous texture cut by intervals of abrupt silence when the pen dips down into the eroding holes of the stone.

To me, Chinese cave dwelling—yaodong—is an area of practice that I will pursue for my Master’s thesis and long after. It is a reconciling between nature and culture, death and birth, silence and screams. “Yao” are beehive-like structures used throughout China’s countryside to fire bricks and tiles. “Dong” are caves, recessed cavities, or holes in the earth. They are one of the earliest forms of human shelter.

Today, 30 to 40 million people still live in yaodong homes, where their ancestors lived thousands of years ago. From primitive worship of the female body to the caves of Taoism, the yaodong tradition sustains people’s spiritual belief of exorcism and blessing. When people die, they are buried in caves near their homes; when people marry, their first night of marriage is called “into the caves.” Being inside a yaodong feels like being inside mother’s womb. Yaodong’s feminism comes from its internal form without external shape.

A yaodong’s carrier is the courtyard, the courtyard’s carrier is the village, the village’s carrier is a mountain or ravine, or the Loess Plateau. Villages are integrated into the environment with low impact.

Yaodong dwellings are typically carved out of a hillside or excavated horizontally from a square hole in the earth that serves as a sunken courtyard. During construction, the soil removed from a hill can be reused. After the yaodong’s time is up, it is buried again and returned to nature without a trace, as time flows on.

Because yaodong construction is cheap, quick, easy and energy-efficient, it has survived the warring states and provided shelter for refugees, the homeless, and soldiers in preparation for critical battles. The yaodong where Chairman Mao lived for 13 years is regarded as a sacred place of revolution, and has played an important role in both political and popular culture.

Unfortunately, for most of history, yaodong houses have been associated with poverty and backwardness. Today’s Chinese architecture is based upon the framework theorized by architectural historians Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiying. They suggest that only one dominant architecture—the standard timber structure that was the official structure of Northern royal palaces and temples—could represent China’s national style.

This stance led to the dismissal of China’s rich cultural diversity. The multiple construction systems and building types, especially the regional architecture of remote areas and minority communities, were largely excluded in their work.

As anywhere in the world, professional architecture has done much to prevent ordinary members of the community from interpreting their value systems through their homes and has inhibited their capacity to shape their domestic environment.

In recent years, China has experienced social tension through urbanization, and the main reason is the income gap between different classes of citizens. For migrant workers who face sky-high property prices, the only option is to live in urban villages and even underground.

I want to be an architect to reconceive yaodong as a new shelter—a spiritual as well as a physical shelter.

This cave-dwelling study not only treats the yaodong as a shelter for living but also as an urban intervention. It envisions yaodong buildings, not only as a physical substructure of landscape in remote areas, but also a vital force for regenerating cultural, social and economic life.

The new yaodongs could engender a feeling of community and hope for the future among the inhabitants of rural communities. We should not simply ban or deconstruct them. Instead of accepting the condition as it is, we should try to transform their features through positive design methods.

My first proposal is an underground dance centre. China has a long tradition of dancing, and people in the Loess soil dance as they pray for the rain. Through the dancer’s movement, space is filled with energy and lightness.

By designing a cast-glass screen for its only façade, I hope to solve the lighting issues by brightening the interior with dispersion of light.

I recall an experience in Capri on a school field trip. After climbing a rock, I started making my way back toward my companions in the water. I called their names but failed to catch their attention. This feeling of isolation struck me strangely as if I were in my ghostly form—as if I had died while I was climbing the rock. Rome, the city we studied, has this ability to make you feel like you are being resurrected from a massive tomb, a puzzling underworld where everything has aged so remarkably well.

Since then, I wear this invisible veil in order to understand the silence of statue and stone better. Once they were particles in the air; then, they became hard as stone and lost their ability to fly. Once, they were sculpted by artists whose hands moved like the wind
, but now they are dead. They are immobile and speechless, but some invisible spirits must float in between stone and us, helping us communicate with the past.

Yaodong to me is a memory box as remote as the earth, buried beneath layers of dust. To reconceive yaodong, I want to stir this dust of thousands of years.

I wish through the juxtaposition of light and darkness, the lightness of glass and the heaviness of earth, that a new dynamic may be channelled inside the cave.

Canadian Architect extends its congratulations to Li Xiaodong, Benny Kwok, Shu Yin Wu, and Loïc Jasmin of the Université de Montréal, whose French-language essay also won a Moriyama RAIC International Prize BMO Financial Group Scholarship.




Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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