Editorial: Moriyama RAIC International Prize Winner Li Xiaodong

Birds and vines weave through the Liyuan Library in Jiaojiehe, China by Li Xiaodong. The project won the inaugural Moriyama RAIC International Prize. Photo by Li Xiaodong
Birds and vines weave through the Liyuan Library in Jiaojiehe, China by Li Xiaodong. The project won the inaugural Moriyama RAIC International Prize. Li Xiaodong

In mid-October, the inaugural Moriyama RAIC International Prize was awarded. The winning project? Not a big-city monument by a globe-trotting starchitect—but a low-budget contemporary library in a modest village by a lesser-known Chinese architect.

Architect Li Xiaodong won the $100,000 award—one of the largest architectural prizes in the world—for a project that cost a little under twice that amount to construct. The 175-square-metre Liyuan Library occupies a lakeside site in the 200-person hillside village of Jiaojiehe near Beijing.

Construction-wise, the project is a simple glass box, clad with panels made of vertical sticks. Inside the library, the cladding creates pleasing shadow patterns. The repeated modules also give the building a quiet sense of grandeur—making it feel larger than its two-storey height and 175-square-metre floorplate.

One of the award’s criteria is the recognition of projects that have been in use for at least two years. By doing so, it explicitly seeks out buildings that have been proven to last—or even improve—over time. That’s certainly the case with the Liyuan Library. At its opening in May 2012, it had only built-in bookshelves and a simple policy: visitors must donate two books before taking one away. A few months later, the library shelves were full. “Everyone feels part of the ownership of the new library,” Li said. Outside, vines are now beginning to creep up into the stick-cladding panels, and Li hopes that eventually, birds will nest there too.

While Li is far from a household name, his modest production has garnered significant critical acclaim. The Yuhu Elementary School, a stone building on a UNESCO World Heritage site in China’s Yunnan province, earned six international awards, including BusinessWeek/ Architectural Record China’s Best Public Project Award. His 2009 Bridge School, which spans a creek in the Chinese village of Xiashi, garnered a prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The inaugural edition of any award lays the groundwork for its future evolution. Choosing the Liyuan Library sends the message that the Moriyama RAIC prize generously recognizes projects that exhibit quintessentially Canadian values: modesty, sensitivity, and a quiet ambition to make a difference in a local community.

These values are evident not only in the Liyuan Library, but also in the essays by three student winners of $5,000 scholarships, awarded in conjunction with the International Prize. Students were asked to compose essays responding to the prompt: Why do I want to be an architect? The seemingly simple question, reasoned founding donor Raymond Moriyama, would elicit genuine answers: with this question, he said, “you can’t hide.”

The proof is in the results. You can read the two English-language winners starting on page 44. I was privileged to be on the jury for the student scholarships, and was thoroughly impressed by the strength of personal conviction of the applicants. The jury deliberated hard to arrive at only three winners from among over 140 entrants. So many of the essays were heartfelt, inspiring and moving.

At a brunch for the three student winners, Moriyama offered them the advice he had received as an inheritance from his father, who had little money but was a masterful calligrapher. He wrote a single sentence to the young Moriyama: “Into God’s eternal temple, drive a nail of gold.”

Moriyama’s hope is that the Prize paired with the scholarships will spur Canadian architects to hold to the values that drew them to the profession. In his speech at the ceremony, he said: “Canada has a long way to go to be a golden Canada. But we have potential to transcend to a higher level of architecture—to a spiritual level of architecture that is lacking today. More than being pretty, this architecture is the affirmation of life.”