Li Xiaodong’s modest, radical architecture

The Bridge School in context, Xiashi, China, photo by Sean Rocha

For a moment, I thought the innovative library in rural China profiled in an article in the New York Times today was the very one I’d visited four years ago on an assignment for Le Monde d’Hermès but that was in the village of Xiashi in Fujian province, in the southeast, and this one is in the village of Jiaojiehe outside Beijing, in the north.  Still, there was something familiar about the exquisite use of natural materials and the sensitive intervention in a small rural village and, indeed, the architect is the same: Li Xiaodong.

The Times article is full of enthusiasm but doesn’t really address what makes Li’s work so interesting.  It is worth reading the piece I wrote for Le Monde d’Hermès — you can see it here, in a separate window, with photographs — to understand the context of the bridge school I visited in Fujian, in particular the unusual communal mud houses called tulou that I wrote about at more length here.  The tulou are amazing: three or four-story, centuries-old, mud and wood circular fortresses housing dozens of families around a shared open courtyard, they are a distinctively Hakka architectural style but, like all mud architecture, they need the maintenance of constant use to keep them standing.  Across Fujian and neighboring Guangdong province, the tulou are being abandoned: some are left to crumble; others are being transformed into pathetic tourist destinations where residents pantomime the lives they once led.

Li Xiaodong’s answer to how to save the tulou was not to tear them down or still less to rebuild new structures on the sites in a fake-old style — these being the preferred development solutions in China — but to propose a beautiful, small scale piece of unmistakably contemporary architecture to bring attention, and thus life, back to this neglected village.  The bridge school straddles a high creek and was designed to bring together the village’s two warring clans.  As with the library in Jiaojiehe, where a wood stove is apparently in the wrong place to be of use, Li’s bridge school had its shortcomings; indeed, there was some uncertainty then whether it would continue to function as a school and might, instead, become a library as well.  There is also some uncertainty whether the rather abstract goal of bringing attention to this village will, in fact, do anything to save the tulou. But in a country that has absolutely decimated its architectural heritage during the long economic boom, Li’s modest work represents a way forward that China should explore further.  As I wrote then:

The bridge is the work of Beijing architect Li Xiaodong and his student Chen Jiansheng, who lives near the village, and though modest in scale (it was made for less than $80,000) it represents something bigger than the small village in which its located, because it attempts to address the architecture of the past rather than replace it.  This is unusual for China, where modernization has come in such a great, disruptive burst that almost everywhere the past is gone; or, in those few places where it still appears visible, it often has been built anew in an approximation of the old style.  But in Xiashi, the bridge does not pretend to be old: its relationship to traditional village life is more profound than mere surface style.

The architects have posed a question, then, about whether new structures can save old ways of life, but the answer is not yet known.  The tulou is made of natural materials so must be inhabited to be preserved; once abandoned, it is deprived of life, of maintenance, and starts to deteriorate from rain and decay.  Now, when I walk around the communal space of the tulou at ground level, I can hear the clink of dishes or the murmur of conversation from those still resident and feel some of the life force that continues to course through this community.  But the upper floors are a reproach, dark and silent, from those families that have moved out of the tulou; in places, the roof has begun to cave in or walls have collapsed and it is too perilous to venture far beyond the sturdy central staircase.

You can read the full article here.  Or click here for the photos of China I took on that assignment.

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