View of the exterior from the northwest Photo: Li Mei

The Liyuan Library is a reading and relaxation space for visitors to and residents of Jiaojiehe village, part of Yanqi township in Beijing’s Huairou district. The building is 170 square meters in area, with a main room 30 meters long, 4.35 meters wide, and 6.3 meters tall. Funding for its construction— built between January and October 2011, total cost amounted to RMB 1.05 million— came primarily from Luke Him-Sau Charitable Trust, while the books were donated by various individuals. The library is a prime example of the civic-minded rural construction projects for which Tsinghua professor Li Xiaodong is known; Li’s last work, the “Bridge School” in Fujian, received multiple awards.

Jiaojiehe is a small village in Huairou’s Zhihui (“Knowledge”) Valley, only accessible by a single highway curving through the mountains. The library is the only man-made structure in the valley’s depths, positioned so it faces water with its back to the mountain. Before the structure there is a pool encircled by a cobblestone shore, over which stretches a plank footway. As they approach, visitors experience a heightening of the senses. The roof and walls of the library are covered in the kind of branches the local villagers use in winter for firewood, and it is this design element from which the name Liyuan (literally, “fenced garden”) derives. The environmental character of the locally-sourced materials also topples the feeling of artificial interference in the building’s otherwise natural setting. The firewood branches serve as a decorative construction material, and as they will attract nesting birds and invite plants to grow within them, the appearance of the exterior changes with the passing of seasons— creating a sense of uncertainty and expectation with the form’s evolution. The construction of the interior space is simple and straightforward, using fir panels throughout. The functional boundaries between the basic bookshelves, seats, and steps remain vague, while any other excess furniture is nowhere to be seen. Light filters through the cracks of the walls’ branches, complementing the mild hue of the fir panels to fill the entire space with a warm atmosphere.

Every detail of this mountain-hidden library recalls the Shangri-La of the urbanite’s imagination. As for those who should benefit most from this project— the local villagers— it seems the elegant packaging of the library has so far failed to inspire a passion for reading among them. Most days there is no attendant at the library, and its main entrance is locked, at least in the winter— all in all, its value as a public library has yet to materialize. Unsurprisingly, though, as such is the problem of many other “civic-minded projects.” (Translated by R. Tyler Cotton)