In mid-2020 we were invited to imagine the design of a civic centre at the entrance to Li Zhuang. It has been said that Li Zhuang is the architectural Jerusalem of China, and the design of such a place at the entrance to the old town put us under pressure: the design had to have depth, but it also needed to be new. The site is situated between the 'new' and the 'old' of the town, the 'inside' and the 'outside', the river and the hills. We are particularly afraid of the tired replication of the usual old town entrance facilities, and hope that the construction of the Civic Centre will convey the richness and innovation of Li Zhuang, its heritage and openness, its mountains, water and habitat.
Walking through the old town is often accompanied by a constant discovery of the green stones, brick walls, steps and objects, the texture of humanity and the sedimentation of time. The old town is an open space that we can enter freely, and it all happens under the ever-extending eaves, the silhouette of the sky being the window through which we observe nature. This is a particularly Chinese state, where man and nature are not in opposition, not inside or outside, but in symbiosis with each other. We are particularly fond of this state and hope to interpret it in the language of modern architecture.
In this sequence of fragments, we have tried to restore the streets, lanes and squares, as if they were extensions of the ancient town's fabric, with reaching, exploring, discovering and staying. This spatial sample unfolds in a seemingly disorderly form, overlaid by another extremely neat construction: a hill formed by overlapping roofs. The hill is the imagery of the landscape and the lower part is the living field that seamlessly connects the public spaces of the old town. Disorder and order meet to form an unexpected yet familiar spatial state, while at the same time forming an interesting interaction with the space outside the building, naturally forming a whole.
The overlapping roofs have the scale of traditional dwellings, but underneath they need to accommodate the changing needs of the contemporary. We insisted on a modern timber structure for the entire roof. The texture of the pine wood conveys the intention of the building's space and structure in the most direct way possible: structure as space, no more wrapping and superfluous decoration, the building aims to define sequence and field.
To achieve this, a three-dimensional approach is used throughout to help us project the changes in space, while providing the structural engineers with spaces and forms they can use. Because there is no more cover beyond the timber structure, it requires a more reverent and exceptionally careful approach to construction, from the large beams, purlins and rafters to the smallest bolts and pins of the connections. And this hard work was rewarded with great pleasure: the space was not only created exactly as we had envisaged, but also with many unexpected surprises. When the main beams and purlins were first laid, the structure was bent and curved in an unusually regular way, just like the Song dynasty painter Ma Yuan's 'Water Picture'. Underneath the knoll was water, which we had not expected, but the natural beauty of the structure was strongly conveyed to those who visited when we were actually there.
Throughout the process, both we and our construction colleagues tried to use locally sourced and natural materials, accommodating colour differences and allowing for greater redundancy in materials, but the results were surprising. The buildings and landscapes under the eaves seem to grow out of the earth and seem to have the awareness of waiting for time to settle more and slowly become the surroundings.