library exterior showing small illuminated windows
Courtesy Zhang Chao

This Library by Atelier Xi Celebrates Past and Present

A series of small concrete pavilions connects isolated communities in China’s Henan province.

How do urban architects engage rural communities? That was the question asked by Shenzhen-based Atelier Xi when tasked with building a structure aimed at providing a place for art and education for the residents of the vast Xiuwu County in China’s Henan province. Instead of just one building, architect Chen Xi executed a series of cast-in-place concrete pavilions for the scattered villages, a decision further influenced by the wide range of landscapes and topography. “We proposed a design approach to break the original 300-square-meter design brief into several miniature pavilions across the county,” he says.

His latest project, Library in Ruins, is located in Sunayo Old Village, one of seven sites chosen for the pavilions. “Since 1996, villagers have moved into the newly built brick-concrete houses in the new village next door one after another, leaving behind many aged adobe houses and cave dwellings,” he notes. Inspiration came from the unique site and Xi hopes it will help locals rethink quality of life, as well as “alleviate isolation and poverty.”

exterior elevation showing staircase and library patrons
Courtesy Zhang Chao
overhead view showing library, grounds, and farm fields beyond.
Courtesy Zhang Chao

From the early design stages, Xi spoke with locals to come up with an arrangement that would be optimal for each community. For example, one of the structures, the Peach Hut, acts as flexible programming space for agricultural events and art exhibitions. “These cast-in-place concrete miniatures are interpreted into a series of tree-shaped spaces with tentacles reaching out for the sky, bathing in light and shadow. Their locations vary from fields, woods, to mountaintops, and their forms differ as well: while one grows out from the ruined walls in an abandoned village, another embodies a floating theater on the water,” he says.

Library in Ruins pays homage to the original abode structures in Sunayo Old Village and functions as a library for villagers and visitors alike. In lieu of a more traditional rammed earth building method, the building’s undulating arches are constructed from cast-in-place concrete, custom steel frame, and a layered wooden board. Coming from the ruins, the “new building has become a spatial device where people can enter the runs, jump over the old houses, gaze into the villages, the fields, and the mountains in the distance,” he says.

Interior staircase and shelving
Courtesy Zhang Chao

The interior space of Library in Ruins functions not only as a stepped library, but also as a small projection room. On the east and west facades of the building, large windows open to the tree-shrouded surroundings, while many uniquely shaped cast concrete windows on the north and south fronts echo the shape of the building.

“We hope leaving such a clue [to the past] can lead visitors and villages to explore other beautiful but different landscapes across the country in order to bring communication between scattered communities,” he says.

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