An interview with Li Xiaodong | Royal Architectural Institute of Canada

An interview with Li Xiaodong

Li Xiaodong is a Beijing-based architect, university professor and researcher. In 2014, he won the inaugural Moriyama RAIC International Prize for the Liyuan Library located in a village on the outskirts of Beijing. Born in Beijing in 1963, Li graduated from the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University in 1984 and completed his Ph.D. in the Netherlands in 1993. He established Li Xiaodong Atelier in 1997, focusing on small, often self-initiated projects and proposing a “Chinese architecture” that brings together traditional and contemporary modes of expression.Last fall, he delivered public lectures in Toronto and Montreal as part of the Moriyama RAIC International Prize Illumination Lecture Series. He spoke to the RAIC’s Maria Cook in Montreal.


How has Liyuan Library transformed Jiaojiehe village?

Jiaojiehe was very isolated. The library suddenly opened up a window for the people living there. It’s also opened up a window for the city people, who can see a different context—that people can live harmoniously with nature. Every weekend, Jiaojiehe now receives 200 to 300 visitors.

I want to help the village to have some income. So next, we are going to build something like a reception centre, with a combination of programs: a museum, a café and a service centre. We also want to help people to renovate their houses, to turn them into bed-and-breakfasts so that people can stay overnight in the village, enjoying the scenery and the library.


The RAIC Moriyama International Prize is given to a work of architecture that is judged to be transformative within its societal context and expressive of the values of justice, respect, equality and inclusiveness. How can the prize encourage such work?

The Moriyama Prize is one of the few major international prizes that sends jury members to visit the finalist buildings. The value of the prize is very high in that sense. Nowadays, we communicate by email, by Facebook, by Twitter—140 characters to transmit our ideas. Ideas are skin deep. To overcome this problem, we need to put away the flashy forms and shapes, and to go deeper. This is exactly the position from which the Moriyama Prize can encourage more meaningful ideas.


What are your observations on the massive urbanization and construction programs underway in China?

In 1979, when China reopened the door to the outside world, other countries were already in a post-modern stage of development. Industrialization had finished. Modernization had finished. China was a black-and-white world, and we were exposed to a colourful world outside. We’d never been through industrialization. We’d never been through modernization. So right away we needed to catch up. We had to become part of the global family.

In the last 30 years, urbanization has been so rapid. We didn’t have time to waste to reflect on what pattern we should adopt. I think it’s now the time for us to look at the mistakes we have been making. We need to adjust how we proceed with our urbanization process in the next 20 years—because we are planning to bring another 400 million from the countryside to the cities.


What are your thoughts on international and imported versus local architecture?

Modern architecture is an invention of the West. China is a late-comer. For the last 100 years, western architects evolved a modern language for architecture through their practice. Over the last 30 years, we learned, copied and tried to capture the essential meaning of modern architecture. A lot of foreign architects have come to China to practice and to collaborate with local architects. They helped architects in China to learn and become more mature in modern architecture.

But what about our culture? Our traditions? Our regional differences? Cultural diversity is just as important as biodiversity. We can’t build our whole world in the same way. We’re living in a different world, with a different culture and different conditions to respond toTo be reflective is very important. That’s what I’m trying to do now: to identify a more genuine contemporary Chinese architecture instead of superimposing ideas from the West onto China.


Can you describe your practice?

Mostly, I’m by myself. I have a team of students who join my practice now and then. I do the fundraising myself. I look for sites. It’s difficult. There’s no design fee. You have to take money from your own pocket sometimes.

Take the example of Bridge School in Fujian province. The funds came from a friend of mine. She has a gallery in Singapore. But it’s not enough to build a building. I talked to the county mayor. I told him: ‘If you give me this money, l will promise to get a major international prize.’ The local government topped up the balance of the cost. And after that, we won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

I draw tremendous pleasure out of this path. Making money doesn’t make me happy, but making good architecture gives me a lot of happiness.


You did post-graduate studies in the Netherlands. What was that like?

It’s another world. Everything is like a model, always like a stage setting. After four years, I went back to China for the first time. It’s almost like you are flying into a big jungle of disaster, pollution, a mass of buildings. It’s so chaotic. The contrast is so major.

After my Ph.D., I practiced for two years in the Netherlands. I was very much lost. I didn’t know what my architecture is. When you do a building that you don’t understand in a deeper sense, it’s difficult to have a footing. It’s not just the play of abstract forms; you have to base it on something. Those two years were very confusing for me. I decided to go back to academia in Singapore to teach and research architecture.


Did you ever consider not returning to China?

No. From the day I left China, I knew I would come back. I love the culture. It’s in your blood, in your genes. I was in the Yellow Mountains for two years right after graduation from Tsinghua University. Those two years were important for me and the rest of my life as well. I was supervising construction of a hotel project, and most of the time I was there alone.

I did a lot of reading about China’s culture, to understand the landscape. It gave me a profound perspective on myself—and my links with this land.