A Library for the Birds? A Chinese Architect Seeks the Ultimate Harmony with Nature Outside Beijing

The exterior of the Liyuan Library in Huairou village
(Courtesy of the architect, Li Xiaodong )

BEIJING — To get to the tranquil village of Huairou, where architect Li Xiaodong has built his sublime and simple Liyuan Library, you must first drive eighty kilometers from Beijing, navigating narrow roads that spiral up and down through mountain passes until a final bumpy dirt track delivers you to the Jiaojie River valley nestled in the shadow of the Great Wall.

The Liyuan Library is the latest in a series of buildings that Li, a professor of architecture at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, has designed to address the needs of China’s struggling rural communities. Previous philanthropic projects have included a school and community center built for the minority Naxi people near the far southern city of Lijiang in 2005 and the so-called “Bridge School” in the village of Xiashi in Fujian Province, which won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010.

Li’s devotion to such charitable projects ultimately attracted the attention of the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust in Hong Kong, which granted Li RMB 1 million to carry out any project he liked to pursue in rural China. It is with these funds that the Liyuan Library was built.

The inspiration for the library arose from a casual visit Li made to a friend who lived in the Jiaojie River valley. Li noticed that outside every home in the village lay great piles of firewood sticks gathered from the local forest. These were used to fuel the villagers’ cooking stoves all year round and meanwhile created an accidental decorative façade for their houses. Li decided to use this firewood as the basic feature of his design

The scope of the project was dictated by the local conditions, relying on a minimal budget and the village's resources. It took the construction workers, all of whom were local villagers, six months to complete. The chosen location was a stretch of wasteland not far from the village. Li says his intention was to provide “a setting for clear thoughts, where one consciously makes the effort to head for the reading room.”

The result is a two-story, 1,880-square-feet building constructed with a gridded-glass interior shell, with square steel supports framing each section. More than 400,000 locally sourced sticks of firewood affixed within square frames then make up the facade. Viewed from outside, the building immediately reminds people of the wooden fences that exist in every courtyard of every house in the surrounding countryside, while blending in perfectly with the natural environment.

“The wooden sticks will attract birds to build their nests on the building." Li says. "With the added mud and the birds’ droppings, soon there will be plants growing out from the building, allowing its color to change with the seasons.” In this way Li hopes his building will harmonize even more naturally with its surroundings. “I do every project with a focus on creating a dialogue between modern architecture and the vernacular traditions and the regional characteristics of the place where the building is located. In that way I avoid following the mainstream trend of plagiarizing or reproducing Western architecture.” It is this philosophy that has lead Li to repeatedly choose projects in remote, rural areas rather than the city, which he believes puts too many constraints and limits on design, leading to mass-production.

Inside Li’s library visitors find a simple environment with flexible spaces for sitting, reading, and stacking books. Light filters in from all directions through the firewood exterior screens, providing a perfect ambience for reading. The façade filters the daylight and blocks out any harsh sun, while providing glimpses of the surrounding mountains and the river. Li hopes that his building will ultimately be more than just a library, providing a social and community center for the entire village.

At first, he hesitated about what kind of building would most benefit the locals, before finally deciding on a library. It now offers a selection of books, ranging from popular science to Chinese classics, all of which have been donated. Every outside visitor to the library has to donate three books when they stop by to read or borrow books. In the long run, as the library attracts more visitors from the city seeking a place for “quiet contemplation” the hope is that the local villagers can always be assured of having access to the latest publications.

Amongst Li’s next projects is a museum in Bali, where he is looking forward to making good use of the island’s abundant bamboo. His design incorporates a roof made of bamboo which he says will provide both ventilation and filtered sunlight to the building while still keeping out the rain. An impossible combination? We’ll have to wait and see.  

Click on our slide show for images of the Liyuan Library in Huairou village.

This article appears on ARTINFO Hong Kong.