February 1, 2010
Forget Me Not
Liu Jiakun honors a girl who died in the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province.
China’s most dangerous building, the Hu Huishan Memorial, is a 200-square-foot room with a soft pink interior. The design, which resembles an oversize modernist dollhouse, is not the issue. The problem is its namesake. Huishan, 15 years old when she died, was one of more than 19,000 children killed in Sichuan during the 2008 earthquake; most of the deaths were due to shoddy school construction. In the name of social stability, local officials have suppressed angry parents and sought to scrub the controversy from public memory. So when this petite memorial rose last May, tucked into a patch of forest in Sichuan’s Dayi county, the government declared the building illegal and ordered it locked indefinitely.
“I didn’t think about this on any political level,” says Liu Jiakun, the memorial’s 53-year-old architect. “It was a personal deed above all.” A native Sichuanese known for designing museums, Liu was volunteering when he met Huishan’s grieving parents amid the rubble of her middle school. They declined his offer of money, but a month later he had an idea: a reimagination of their daughter’s room as a serene refuge. Though he worried they would think it an ineffectual response, the parents were grateful. “Then I knew it had to be built,” Liu says, “even though it wasn’t permitted or legal.”
In a country where buildings are often linked with excess or deadly thrift, Liu’s memorial is also an elegant tribute to architecture itself. Its pitched roof and redbrick terrace mimic the makeshift tents and paving material ubiquitous throughout Sichuan’s recovery. The gray plaster that coats the brick walls gives the building a universality and solidity, transforming the survivors’ tent into an earthquake-ready structure. Its austerity sets off the vital color and beauty within. Warm and rosy, with Huishan’s ephemera pinned to the walls, the interior is exquisite. A round skylight, the width of a small person, hints at another escape.
Shortly after the dreamlike room opened, however, the threats began. “They must be afraid it might become a sentimental gathering place for the parents who lost their children,” says Zhu Tao, a professor of architecture at Hong Kong University. (The local government will not comment.) The memorial also breaks with Chinese custom. “This memorial is not built for a country, nation, regime, or a great man,” Zhu says. “It is not meant to serve as an ‘educational battlefield’ to promote patriotism and heroism, as the Chinese propaganda slogan often labels China’s cultural institutions.”
Using his blog and a network of academics and journalists, Zhu helped the architect create a “massive and furious” public reaction to the building’s closure. The local government has since compromised with the landlord, allowing the memorial to be unlocked upon request. “I hope it can gain legal status,” Liu says. If the memorial has helped Sichuan honor its dead, it has also helped rethink how buildings enshrine memory in China. To that end, Liu readily offers his own bit of propaganda: “Treasuring the value of ordinary lives will be the foundation of our nation’s revival.”