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School and Community Centre in China by Li Xiaodong Design Stydio

Li Xianodong revisits established architectural typologies when placing this contemporary group of buildings within sensitives UNESCO world heritage site

AR_EA 2005 Highly commended

With the unrivalled rate of development in China, there is a genuine concern (admittedly from foreign observers) that Chinese architects are yet to find a coherent contemporary architectural identity. Traditionally, China has had a rich architectural heritage within which even the most elementary architectural eye could identify common architectural motifs: Dougong brackets that articulate the junction between column and beam; sweeping concave roofs that create distinctive silhouettes in both urban and wild rural contexts; brightly painted timber; and perhaps most fundamentally, the systematic grouping of buildings around courtyards, where the now overused Western architectural cliche of making inside/outside space had merit, authenticity and appropriateness.

As last year’s Beijing Biennale demonstrated, the most interesting home-grown talents were those who had chosen to work with, rather than against, their heritage. With this project, Li Xiaodong is very much part of this generation; a generation that while not necessarily being completely satisfied with the resolution of their own architectural language, nevertheless works rigorously to extract essence and nuance when considering how to build.


Site plan

The Yuhu Elementary School and Community Centre, completed last year, nestles in the foothills of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in Lijiang, home to the 280 000 or so members of the Naxi minority nationality. Providing educational space for 160 students and community activity space for up to 1300 villagers, the complex comprises three small buildings arranged in a Z-configuration. This creates two courtyards, each set aside for separate school and community activities. Deriving significance from the Naxi tenet that sees the mountains as the backbone and water as the soul of their culture, both stone and water feature heavily; as do reinterpretations of the traditional Naxi home.

One such reinvention is the articulation of the stair, which forms a focus to the community courtyard. Traditionally occupying one corner of a Naxi house, the stair frees up space to provide more flexible orthogonal rooms while celebrating the ritual of teachers making their way to the classrooms below. Effort was also made to simplify the architectural language while respecting traditional details and techniques. The use of traditional timber-frame detailing with mortise and tenon joints, for example, is a proven safeguard against earthquake collapse, with all masonry being independently reinforced and non load-bearing. Traditional ornamentation is also reduced to basics, with curved ridgelines straightened and gable end ornament simplified to a simple lattice framework inspired by traditional grain racks. Sliding and casement windows are also abundant, bringing fresh air, light and access when required. The uniqueness of the design within a very particular context impressed the judges, as a demonstration of how local materials, technology and spatial arrangements can be transformed into a fresh language. The challenge for this generation, however, with Li Xiaodong and many contemporaries based in cities like Beijing, will ultimately come when they are given the opportunity to raise their game, and to tackle the problems associated with large-scale urban developments.

School and Community Centre, Lijiang, China

Architect: Li X iaodong Design Studio, Beijing

Project team: Li X iaodong,Yeo Kang Shua, Chong Keng Hua, Stanley Lee Tse Chen

Photographs: Melvin H. J. Tan

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