by Meghna MehtaFeb 08, 2020
Beijing-based architect and Tsinghua University Professor Li Xiaodong (b. 1963) is considered to be a true guru and undisputed authority to many leading young Chinese architects. Li is a reflexive regionalist for whom architecture is a matter of debate and whose stance is firmly rooted in Chinese history, culture, and philosophy. Yet, his architecture is continuously questioning what is appropriate; it is open to contemporary interpretations. He has built relatively few projects and mainly on a small scale, but each work is exceptional – thoughtful, comforting, serine, and strikingly beautiful. He seems to be unaffected by rapid speed of development in China and chooses carefully to undertake only those projects that present opportunities to innovate and rethink architecture, to respond best to each place, programme, and what constitutes the architect’s own identity.
Li grew up in the family of Beijing Agricultural University professor. During the Cultural Revolution years, when schools and universities were suspended, Li’s family, along with millions of others at the time, was forced to live in the countryside. After coming back to Beijing, he studied architecture at the country’s top school, Tsinghua University, which he graduated in 1984. Li then spent over a decade outside of China – first completing his PhD at Delft University in 1993 and later teaching at the National University of Singapore. He established Li Xiaodong Atelier in 1997, one of the first independent architectural practices; to this day it is extremely rare to come across a namesake practice in China. Among many prestigious accolades, Li won the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2009 Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Award, and the 2000 RIBA tutor’s prize. He is the author of Chinese Conception of Space (1991) and serves as the chair professor of the architecture program at the Architecture School at Tsinghua. We discussed Li Xiaodong’s architecture at his studio in Beijing. The following is a condensed version of that meeting.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): What was it that first brought you into architecture?
Li Xiaodong (LX): I was 16 when my father realised that I would be a good architect because I was very good at building chicken houses out of brick. I grew up in a small village where we lived on the ground floor of an apartment building. I would often rebuild these structures, which was intuitive to me and very interesting. I was doing that since I was 12. My father was working at the Agricultural University in Beijing. It was his friend who suggested it to him. He himself could not do it, as it was during the Cultural Revolution times when architectural studies were suspended for ten years in the entire country. At that time all universities in China were sent to the countryside. My father’s university was based in Beijing. Our family followed the relocation of the entire campus, which actually moved several times from province to province.
VB: How would you explain to a lay person what your architecture is about?
LX: I would say it is about organising space in the most beautiful way. Organising a functional, beautiful space for people to use it in the most enjoyable ways. Space should be beautiful, ordered, and functional. And spaces should be done economically. Money should not be spent on things that are unnecessary.
VB: In other words, you concentrate on what’s necessary, on what needs to be done. But when I look at images of your beautiful buildings, such as your Bridge School in Fujian province, I feel like the reason I like it is exactly because you, as an architect, has done what is beyond what’s necessary. You have done that extra that has turned a mere building into architecture.
LX: That’s because what’s necessary is something that’s difficult to define. What was necessary for that school in that village? The village needed something iconic at that time to bring up their spirit. That village had to be rejuvenated. It was necessary to inject aesthetic quality into the local community. The new school had to serve as a beacon. The reason I placed the school right over the new bridge was because it could act as the new centre for the community. There are two historical castles on either side of the creek. Historically, there used to be two communities that had been fighting one another. That’s all in the past, so the idea was to connect these two communities. The bridge, quite literally, is a symbolic metaphor for that unity. It was also important to make the connecting link with the school for young children because they represent the youngest and most energetic group of the community. The centre is the right source for the energy to be spread all over the village.
VB: On your website it says that you are focused on small and often self-initiated projects. Could you elaborate on how you initiate projects and why you focus on small scale?
LX: I do have some larger scale projects as well. Actually, the scale doesn’t matter to me for as long as there is an opportunity to innovate and cast new ideas. I am looking for things I haven’t done before. I am not interested in repeating something. And the reason for self-initiated projects is simple – I want to be able to control the design and construction; that way everything is under my control. When you work for a client, you always depend on many approvals and inevitably, you have to compromise. But in self-initiated projects everything is up to me. Only then I feel empowered as an architect.
VB: And who is the client in those self-initiated projects?
LX: These projects are initiated directly – between me and the local people. In the case of the Bridge School, a friend of mine told me about this poor village and their needs. The money for construction came from a private foundation. This project is not unique in China because local governments are now aware of such examples and they invite architects and sponsor projects that have a potential to stimulate local economy. I was one of the very first, if not the first architect in the country, who started doing such projects in the villages. The first project was the Yuhu Elementary School. Yuhu is a small Naxi village in Lijiang, in Yunnan Province, an area under the protection of World Cultural Heritage Program. The school was established in 2001. I visited it in 2002 with my students when I was teaching in Singapore. It started as a research project. It was done pro-bono on my part. The money for construction came from Singaporean and Chinese private donors. The school was completed in 2004. Back then there were no independent architects working in the countryside in China.
VB: Many of the architects who now focus on projects in rural areas just started opening their offices in early 2000s – Zhang Ke started his ZAO/standardarchitecture in 2001, Philip Yuan – his Archi-Union in 2003, Xu Tiantian – her DnA in 2004, Pei Zhu – his namesake studio in 2005. Yung Ho Chang opened his practice in 1993 but his early projects in the countryside were all private villas. Wang Shu did a library in 2000 but that was a part of university campus in Suzhou.
LX: That’s right. At the time, I was still going between Singapore and China, and did not have clients here, so I had to be proactive about getting work.
VB: You said that you try to develop propositions for an appropriate Chinese architecture. Could you elaborate on that?
LX: What I mean by that is the issue of identity. And not Chinese identity overall but regional one. China has so many different regions, I don’t believe there is such a thing as Chinese architectural identity. There shouldn’t be one, anyway. China is too diverse as a country culturally and climatically for a single architectural identity.
VB: Yet, many Chinese architects avoid being personal, as opposed to many architects in the West. There is no strive here for establishing recognisable signature styles. You also told me before that you don’t believe in architecture as an expression of an individual style. You said it is not sustainable. How do you then bring subjectivity to your work?
LX: Very easy – through the way you order space, how you work with materials, and resolve details. There are so many ways to be personal in architecture. I focus on space order. Sure, I am interested in my own interpretations but not by inventing new, never before seen forms. To me that’s more relevant. But subjectivity is important. So, if something has been done before, why bother repeating it? I want to find my own way. I am looking for my own order, my own strategy. This is what makes my architecture subjective. There is nothing special about basic materials such as brick or bamboo. But once you establish a particular order and find intriguing juxtapositions that’s when architecture has a chance to become something special and even unique.