Veil and grid: Library by Li Xiaodong, China
The beautiful rippling veil of slim sticks and timber interior ensures this modest communal village library connects with its setting, stimulating both mind and eye
In China’s recent dash for growth, it often seems that any acknowledgement of tradition or resonant connection with the past has been abruptly cauterised. Yet among an increasingly confident architectural profession, there are growing pockets of resistance to the mindless aping of Western models. Li Xiaodong is one of a younger generation of Chinese architects who are attempting to cultivate a more empathic engagement with the nuances of place and vernacular tradition, using these to inform an identifiably modern yet experientially rich 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.’ Li has worked on China’s social and geographic margins, exploring how local materials, technologies and archetypes can be synthesised into a memorable contemporary language.
A school for the village of Xiashi, in remote Fujian Province, which in 2009 won the AR Emerging Architecture Award (AR December 2009), reinterpreted the traditional notion of an inhabited bridge that could be adapted to play a wider social role in village life. Li’s latest project is for a library in another village, Jiaojiehe, on the edge of the Beijing conurbation. Two hours’ drive from the city centre, this rural idyll is a world away from the blare and dislocation of Beijing life.
Set against an almost painterly tableau of river, forest and mountains, Li’s deliberately unassuming building acknowledges that here, the manmade cannot compete with nature. We wanted to use architecture to enhance the appreciation of the natural landscape,’ says Li. ‘So instead of adding a new building to the village centre, we chose a particular site in the nearby mountains.’ The site is only a short walk from the village, but this physical and psychological disconnection helps to conjure a sense of scholarly contemplation, in preparation for immersing yourself in books.
The long, low, two-storey volume is partly embedded into the riverside site. Along the water’s edge, a series of narrow walkways and bridges link the library with the wider terrain, connecting with routes from the village and anchoring it in the landscape, as well as offering the potential for meditative strolls.
Consideration of the relationship with landscape − how buildings sit in and interact with their surroundings, as well as the nature and placing of routes, paths and thresholds − has deep and complex roots in traditional Chinese architecture. Wrapped in an outer layer of wooden sticks veiling an inner layer of glass, the building has an impermeable and slightly enigmatic countenance. From a distance, the neatly stacked effect of the sticks suggests that it might even be some kind of timber store, rather than a library.
Walls and roof are identically constructed, the two layers of sticks and glass held together by a gridded, laminated timber structure. The thickness of the structure gives it a further use as shelving for books, so the grid becomes animated by the building’s contents. The sticks are more usually gathered and used by locals as firewood to fuel their cooking stoves. Li noticed bundles piled outside each house and ‘decided to use this ordinary material in an extraordinary way, cladding the building in familiar textures’.
The harvested sticks were cut and trimmed to equal lengths and set vertically in the structural grid. Together they form a rustic rain screen or oriental mashrabiya, rooting the building more intimately in its rural setting, while also magically filtering and tempering the light.
From inside the effect is highly sensuous, with sunlight percolating through the fine timber veil, the thin sticks resembling fine ink brushstrokes dabbed across the glass skin. At certain points, the glass is left uncovered to frame particular views out to the external landscape.
The building’s interior is a topographic assemblage of steps and changes of level that define intimate enclaves for sitting and reading. Bookshelves are integrated within this topography, so the interior has a delightful informality, with patrons hunkering down on thin cushions to browse and read. Small terraces jutting out over the riverside offer the chance to break off from study and to admire the views. It’s all elementally simple; sticks, books, glass and light.
Yet in its beautifully judged sobriety, Li’s building shows what modern Chinese architecture could be, and how it resonates with the human need for introspection and connection with nature, stimulating mind and eye in equal measure.
Architects: Li Xiaodong Atelier
Photographs: Li Xiaodong
Location: Jiaojiehe Village, Beijing, China