A Chinese library with a facade of twigs

The twigs act as a camouflage for the library (above and above right). Designed by architect Li Xiaodong (centre), the library in Jiaojiehe has one large room lined with open bookshelves and elevated reading platforms.
Designed by architect Li Xiaodong (centre), the library in Jiaojiehe has one large room lined with open bookshelves and elevated reading platforms.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
The twigs act as a camouflage for the library (above and above right). Designed by architect Li Xiaodong (centre), the library in Jiaojiehe has one large room lined with open bookshelves and elevated reading platforms.
The twigs act as a camouflage for the library (above). PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
The twigs act as a camouflage for the library (above and above right). Designed by architect Li Xiaodong (centre), the library in Jiaojiehe has one large room lined with open bookshelves and elevated reading platforms.
The twigs act as a camouflage for the library (above).PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The exterior walls and roof of a library outside Beijing are clad with tree branches which let in light

JIAOJIEHE, CHINA • Nestled among the shimmering chestnut, walnut and peach trees of a deep valley surrounded by craggy hills, the tiny village of Jiaojiehe suffers from being close to the nation's capital. The young flee easily to the big city, leaving the elderly behind, lonely and poor.

In today's China, villages like this often try to engineer a sense of well-being by, say, opening a new medical clinic or upgrading the water supply.

But Li Xiaodong, an award- winning architect who fuses traditional Chinese ideas of design with Western themes, had a different idea for Jiaojiehe.

He was captivated by the potential he saw in the village's most abundant natural resource - the branches of its thousands of trees, which the locals harvest for fuel.

So he built a library - with a twist. At its base, it is a steel-and-glass box in the vein of a Philip Johnson open-plan creation from the 1950s, but its exterior walls and roof are clad with fruit-tree twigs.

The spindly sticks are arranged in vertical rows and their uneven shapes allow natural light to filter into the library's reading room, while keeping the building cool in the summer and cosy in the winter.

In the city, a library seems to be unnaturally quiet... But here, the peace is natural.''

BEIJING RESIDENT LI WENLI on the library in Jiaojiehe

They also act as a kind of camouflage, making the library's rectangular edges barely noticeable in the landscape as visitors approach the village on a narrow, twisting road.

The interior of the library is basically just one large, casual room, lined with open bookshelves and an eclectic collection of works that include United States President Barack Obama's The Audacity Of Hope, Forrest Gump and traditional Chinese novels about the Qing dynasty.

There are no chairs or desks, just a polished wood floor with elevated platforms where readers can lounge with books.

Meeting the reading needs of the roughly 50 households that remain in the village is something of a sideline, though.

What the building is mainly meant to be is a magnet for day- trippers from Beijing, eager to escape the city's perpetual smog and dirt for a bit of beauty and calm.

"The library is a tool to attract people to the village," said Mr Li, 52, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

When visitors come to see the library, he said, they also spend money at the village's few restaurants, pay parking fees and donate money for the building's upkeep.

"The place is special," said Ms Li Wenli, 45, an insurance saleswoman from Beijing who sat in a corner with a large book balanced on her knees as her nine-year-old son read along with her.

"In the city, a library seems to be unnaturally quiet. You think: 'I need to stay quiet because everybody else is quiet.' But here, the peace is natural."

The library has a presence on social media and many of the visitors on the weekend are university students or young professionals. They wander around the village, snap photos of themselves and order the local delicacy - stewed chicken with chestnuts - at one of the restaurants.

Ms Wang Fuying, 57, who used to grow crops in the area, is now the librarian, even though she can barely read. "All the visitors are from the city," she said. "We have up to 200 visitors a day over the weekend. They come for fun, take a look, take some pictures and take a walk."

Architect Li graduated from Tsinghua University in 1984, in one of the first classes of young designers to emerge after the Cultural Revolution. He went to the Netherlands to study history and theory of site planning, received a doctorate in 1994 and taught in Singapore before returning to join the faculty of the lively architecture school at Tsinghua.

There, he refines ideas he said were influenced by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and are based on the tenet that buildings should be integral parts of the landscape and not objects placed in it.

"Chinese architecture is always drawn from a bird's-eye view, never from the human eye. We always think of architecture as one piece. We don't see the human as detached from the environment."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2015, with the headline 'Read in a world of twigs'. Print Edition | Subscribe