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Bridge School by Li Xiaodong Atelier, Xiashi, Fujian Province, China

Li Xiaodong’s lightweight inhabited bridge acts as a foil to the neighbouring thick stone historical structure. Photography by Li Xiaodong

In practice since 1997, Li Xiaodong is one of a rarer breed of Chinese architects. Less concerned with aping Western models, Li’s work focuses on how the nuances of place and vernacular tradition can inform an identifiably modern and authentic Chinese architecture. ‘Precedents of past experience and knowledge are important,’ says Li. ‘They provide a solid basis from which to solve new problems.’ Though it often seems that a sense of history has been carelessly cauterised in China’s dash for growth, Li attempts to nurture physical and experiential connections with the past.

He’s also not averse to working on the social and geographic margins. An earlier project for a school and community centre for the Naxi people near Linjiang, proved how local materials, technology and building forms can be synthesised into a memorable, contemporary language. The project was also highly commended in the 2005 AR Awards (AR December 2005).

This year, Li goes one better as one of four principal prize winners. His project for a school in Xiashi, a remote village in Fujian Province, has programmatic echoes of the Naxi community centre, but the architectural result is quite different. Here, a lightweight structure traverses a moat-like creek in a single, supple bound, compared with the rooted, more solid aesthetic of the Linjiang building with its thick stone walls.

Essentially, it’s an intelligent, contemporary take on the archetype of the inhabited bridge. Supported on concrete piers, the simple steel structure acts like a giant box girder that’s been slightly dislocated, so the building subtly twists, rises and falls as it spans the creek. Inside are a pair of almost identical, wedge-shaped classrooms, each tapering towards the mid point of the structure. Although it’s possible to use the building as a bridge, a narrow crossing suspended underneath the steel structure and anchored by tensile wires offers an alternative and more direct route.

Catalysing a sense of place and history, Li Xiaodong sees the project as more than just a school, but a social centre for the entire village. Physical lightness and spatial fluidity are key. By a means of sliding and folding doors, the school can be transformed into an impromptu theatre or play structure. The steel frame is wrapped in a veil of slim timber slats, which filter light and temper the interior with cooling breezes - Fujian, on China’s south-east coast, has a humid, subtropical climate.

With an assurance that belies its rustic setting, the new building also acts as a foil to the mass and weight of the neighbouring historic structures.

Originally constructed by ancestors of the local Hakka people, these distinctive circular fortresses have thick, imperforate walls of rammed earth.

The jury was unanimously impressed by the clarity and grace of the new architecture, while also admiring its potential to transform life in China’s rural margins.

Architect Li Xiaodong Atelier, Beijing, China
Project team Chen Jiansheng, Li Ye, Wang Chuan, Liang Qiong, Liu Mengjia, Nie Junqi
Building contractors Zhangzhou Steel, Xiashi village

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