The Yuhu Elementary School

(Lijiang, Yunnan, China, 2004)

□   About the Building

Yuhu is a small Naxi village in Lijiang – an area under the protection of World Cultural Heritage Program. The name Yuhu takes its name from the Jade Lake – a lake formed by melted water from Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The small village sits at the foot of the Mountain at an altitude of 2,760 meters and enjoys a pleasant climate of “warm in winter and cool in summer.” The picturesque Snow Mountain and crystal glacier peaks make a spectacular backdrop for the village.

The rural Yuhu Elementary School was established in 2001. In 2002, when Li Xiaodong and his students visited on a research trip from Singapore, the school could no longer meet its teaching requirements—it was in urgent need of expansion but there was a severe shortage of educational funds at the local level. The integration of contemporary architecture and regional culture has always been a very interesting topic for architects and the group of architects were concerned with social and public welfare. A decision was made to overcome all difficulties and build a Hope primary school there. No design fee would be charged on the project and the team not only donated 80,000 yuan, but collected funds through multiple channels (mostly Singaporean and Chinese donors) including grants from the local government. The land for the expansion was even donated by local residents – a site located north of the original Yuhu Elementary School and adjacent to the former residence of Joseph Rock (1922-1962), a well-known Austrian-American botanist and journalist for National Geographic.

□   Thinking of Design

About task and challenges

The project site lies within the World Cultural Heritage area, adjacent to historic buildings under protection. The particular culture of the place fed the project but also presented its biggest challenges. The design needed to not only address and respect the local environment, history and culture and meet the functional demands of a school. It also had to cope with the financial difficulties, resource shortage, and technical constraints of the place. The principal issue of the project became how to integrate limited resources and maximize efficiency in utilizing these resources. The design needed to take into consideration spatial, relational, formal and material design aspects; find a solution that would allow the integration of modern building language, traditional culture, and vernacular feelings; and construct buildings suitable for local conditions and sustainable development.

About objective and principle

Sympathetic to all the particularities of the site, the architects defined their design objective as combining education, research, design, and construction practices–culturally, economically, resourcefully and environmentally—in a way that would set an example for the sustainable development of world heritage sites.

The philosophy was to ground the design in the architects’ research of local tradition, building technology and resources. The project integrated research and design and tried to re-interpret the vernacular architecture of Lijiang with environmental understanding, social sensitivity and an interest in building preservation.

About layout

The architects considered the whole site and developed a three-part site strategy consisting of a community center and exhibition space open to the village and two two-story classroom wings. The architecture borrowed from but also broke with the typology of traditional Naxi quadrangle houses. Using an old maple tree at one end as the center of the scheme, the design adopted a z-shaped layout and divided the courtyard into two smaller courts. The school courtyard was defined by two individual classrooms and flanked by farmland; the other, public, courtyard is defined by one classroom, the community center and the wall Joseph Rock’s former residence. Rock’s former residence became a “borrowed” part of the project—part of the backdrop of the quadrangle house—by coordinating the architectural vocabulary of the new buildings with it. A water area was designed near the entry area of the community center. The intention was to not only help adjust the humidity of the space but also produce reflections harmonious with the surrounding environment, including the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain far away.

The spatial layout actually changed the dynamic of the village. As there was no other public building in the village, the school became a public space. Besides its educational function, the school also provided a space for villagers’ leisure activities. The courtyard at the entry became the center of the village.

About architecture

The design intended to integrate new buildings with the local environment and to re-interpret vernacular architecture using a modern vocabulary instead of imitation. All traditional decorative techniques and ornamentation were simplified: traditional curved roof ridges were straightened, old-style gable-end ornaments, inspired by farmers’ grain-drying racks, were simplified as timber lattice frames. The essence of vernacular architecture was extracted and then re-expressed in form and space. In this way, the architects preserved the rudiments of sloping rooftops, their gray tiles and tilt, the standard division of interior space in an old-style house, etc.

Naxi culture views the “mountain as the skeleton and water as the soul,” and the design deliberately maximizes the use of local materials and these elements. For reasons of sustainability, the architects used a large amount of white calcareous sedimentary rocks and pebbles—rich local resources—in the project’s stonewalls and pavements. Since the buildings surrounding the school were mainly constructed of clay brick, white limestone made the building stand out while looking harmonious. A large volume of local wood was used in the space—for the floors, in the facades and grilles. Under the right lighting, the scene has a natural aura and ambiance.

Materials for the structure were another challenge. Because of the limited budget, only simple and inexpensive materials should be considered but these materials needed to possess excellent anti-seismic capability. Although steel is an excellent material for stair structures, it was too expensive. To save the cost, steel plates were from salvage yards and matched to wood templates in a ration of 1:1. The steel plates were then cut to the same size as the templates. And the staircases were finished.

For reasons of economic sustainability, the project was built by a local construction team and construction workers led by a Singaporean team of consultants. This cooperation allowed traditional architectural materials and technologies to be integrated in modern ways. It was a productive process both despite and because of the debates that took place between the two technologies and cultures, as well as numerous trials, compromises, and adaptations.

□   Conclusion

Li Xiaodong is the first architect in China to build Hope primary schools, and the Yuhu Elementary School was his first attempt to incorporate issues of local sustainability into his architecture. This project reflects his consistent endeavors to solve problems using minimal resources, how to interpret what is local in a modern way, and how to enter into conversations with the environment.

The completed project involved the joint effort of around 160 students and 1,300 villagers. Despite twists and turns along the way, the villagers and several international prizes have recognized the final outcome. Villagers have described the school as having a simultaneous feeling of familiarity and, “. It is not the kind of house we can build; but it echoes the old houses.” The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards jury comments describe the project’s directive role and contribution to contemporary vernacular architecture: “Its delicate design skillfully interprets the traditional architectural environment through modern technology; its bold utilization of local materials and creative illustration of vernacular architecture not only creates a powerful form, but also pushes sustainable architectural design one step forward.