Why modest architecture is evocative

Nov 11 • Architects, International, Rural • 3291 Views • 3 Comments on Why modest architecture is evocative

Moriyama RAIC International Prize winner Li Xiaodong gives an in depth account of how the Liyuan Library came to reality and its oneness with the environment.


1. The Liyuan Library was built on a very small budget. Give examples of design decisions that were made as a result of this.

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

In general, this meant from the start I had to consider a modest design, not wasting any resources. This was most challenging giving the climatic conditions, as Beijing has a harsh climate with very cold, dry winters (up to -20°C) and very hot, humid summers (up to +40°C), with very strong solar radiation. This normally requires advanced air-conditioning devices to control the interior climate. However, our library is disconnected from typical building infrastructure. There is no electrical power for instance, and it would cost a lot to get connected.

So, instead we relied on passive building measures and traditional knowledge to create a comfortable atmosphere. In summer, a clever system of openings stimulates a natural air flow throughout the building with air that is chilled over the body of water in front. In winter, these openings are kept largely closed, and the underlying glass box creates a greenhouse effect that warms up during the day.


2. Describe how the project is emblematic of human respect and inclusiveness.

The Library project itself is a respectful, modest addition to the small village of Jiaojiehe on the outskirts of Beijing, China.

Relating your question to the design process, for me this is about combining technology, community, local materials, modern thinking and a traditional sense of identity.

In addition, since its completion the library has seen tremendously appreciated and used by a wide variety of people. A new bus stop has even opened close by to accommodate the frequent visits by thousands of people, including local villagers, tourists from the Beijing urban area, and many international visitors as well.

On the one hand the project thus forms a modern programmatic complement to the village by adding a small library in a setting of quiet contemplation. On the other hand we wanted to use architecture to enhance the appreciation of the natural landscaping qualities.

Regarding inclusiveness; 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.

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

Architect: Li Xiaodong Atelier
Project team: Li Xiaodong; Li Yayun, Huang Chenwen; Pan Xi
Floor area: 175 m2
Client: Jiaojiehe Village
Construction Period: March 2011-October 2011
Cost: $185,000 USD
Commissioning Donors: Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust and Pan Xi


3. Explain the “layering of space” of Liyuan Library.

Layering of space relates to sequence, hierarchy and ordering of spatial experiences. For us Chinese, an artificially created space is first of all cosmological and should be in harmony with the order of nature. Before we realized that nature could be appreciated, we had developed the thought of the ‘Unity of Man and Nature’.

When I start working on a project, the first thing I do is to analyze the site and the flow of energy through it. Then, with my training as an architect, I hope to translate my findings into designs.

So instead of adding a new building inside the village center, we chose this particular site in the nearby mountains, a pleasant five minute walk from the village center. In doing so we could provide a setting of clear thoughts when one consciously takes the effort to head for the reading room.

The inside of the building has a very expressive character though; its interior is spatially diverse by using steps and small level changes to create distinct places.

The building is fully glazed to allow for a fully naturally lit space. The wooden sticks temper the bright light and spread it evenly throughout the space to provide for a perfect reading ambiance; a world within a world.



4. How do you see the Liyuan Library leaving an impact of the children who visit?

The experience of a library does not only come from the content of the books, but also from how the atmosphere affects the overall environment, and by how it leaves a lasting impression on the children who visit it. Because, the concept and thinking inherent in the space, these kind of intangible effects cannot be outwardly captured in words or outright expressions, but the existence of such a space and the meaning of the concepts inherent in it, whether it is through the content of the books, the act of reading, or the interacting with other visitors, all these expressions and interactions, will leave a lingering impression on children visiting the library. The library may even inspire children to become authors themselves one day and they could even use some of the best self publishing companies out there to get their books stocked in this library. Children have a great imagination and a library can encourage them to follow their true passions.


5. Why is modesty in architecture important to you?

The exterior appearance is a modest addition to the natural surrounding, 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.

This is done, because for me architecture is part of the environment, it should not be considered independently. Therefore, the design of this place also required for the building to become part of the environment, This is to say, that it will impact the environment, with the least impact possible, to embed it in the surrounding environment. Therefore the choice of materials, and the choice of expression, are all chosen in the most simple, direct, natural ways.

And, with this modest, natural approach, I hope that in many years, after the project accumulates time and experience, the natural process of weathering will change the look of the building. This is something I aspire to facilitate, that the build entity will evolve, into an expression of the process of nature, rather than being a statement of the designer.

To be part of this process is then also to express the Chinese tradition of being one with nature’s way of thinking, and I wish to express this into a form and process of contemporary architecture.

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3 Responses to Why modest architecture is evocative

  1. sixty7 Architecture Road says:

    Yes, indeed Eleonora!

  2. Very nice project! I like how the library relates to the landscape.

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