November 10, 2014

Liyuan Library: a destination haven near Beijing


Liyuan Library

Liyuan Library

Liyuan Library is a tourist destination. Many go there not in order to read the books but to stand inside an architectural marvel. And now there will be more tourists planning to visit, because its architect, Li Xiaodong, has just won Canada’s inaugural Moriyama RAIC International Prize, which includes $100,000.

The judges interviewed those who’d visited a building in the running, and based evaluation on “its formal and spatial qualities, its response to site, climate and culture, its craftsmanship, environmental design and its record of experience in use.” They sought structures that were “transformative, inspired as well as inspiring, and emblematic of the human values of respect and inclusiveness.”

Li’s submission statement declared: “This project is about the relationship of a building to its surroundings and its role in serving the community, rather than a building as a discrete object.” It was opened in 2012, after Hong Kong’s Lu Qianshou Trust funded the construction.

At nearly 1,900 square feet, Liyuan Library is a box made of firewood and glass, and the walls a matrix of branches picked nearby so that the building blends into the landscape. It sits an hour and a half away from Beijing proper in the village of Jiajiehe. Visitors both local and international are encouraged to bring two books to drop off and leave carrying away one.

I have a confession to make: libraries freak me out.

I used to think it was because I disagreed with the Dewey decimal system. But I can’t disagree with something if I can’t provide my own alternative system, so let me say instead that it’s something to do with books having to be organized at all. The alphabetizing and the classifying. Protecting them with plastic covers, the base of the spine taped with typewritten letters and numbers. Each bound thing in its place.

My own library at home is arranged by language of origin and how closely, in my estimation, the writers relate to one another. John Berger, Mu Xin, and Lydia Davis sit on one shelf, for example, and Lu Xun, Yoko Tawada, and César Aira on another, while Borges and Don Quixote quietly converge in their own corner. I’ve been paring down this collection to a (happily) meager amount for the past few years, because my relationship to reading and owning books has changed. The ones that are left are the companions who matter—a dinner table finally set.

So when I think of libraries, I experience something close to vertigo—that’s a lot of dinners to plan—but things begin to make sense if the structure is contained inside the landscape, the way Liyuan Library is in Jiajiehe and the New York Public Library is on Fifth Avenue. Form and function, a confounding and a necessity.

My second confession is more mundane: Recently I’ve resolved to not be freaked out by libraries anymore. I can do this by being a tourist of libraries around the world, starting with Liyuan.


Wah-Ming Chang was the managing editor of Melville House.