Architecture, Interior Design – Imagine a never-ending staircase, as an infinite loop of risers and treads squeezed into a traditional timber house. Adding to the mystery, the staircase has no destination but rather is a destination itself. The house’s walls have been transformed into a matrix of bookshelves and windows overlooking a courtyard. However, this is no ordinary children’s library.
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Located in the Dong Minority village in the Tongdao Province, Hunan, China, the Pingtan Book House by Hong Kong-based studio Condition_Lab is a three-story structure entirely made in timber. As a building typology, it follows the traditional Dong House, a rapidly disappearing traditional structure with pitched roofs and a construction system of interlocking columns and beams.
“For years, Dong Minority villages have been confronted with the ever-present reality of the decline of their beautiful architectural heritage, eradicated by the arrival of a foreign material – concrete.” Explain Condition_Lab. “Entire villages, built over centuries from a single sustainable material – indigenous China Fir – are rapidly losing their identity. Dong’s cultural DNA is being challenged by contemporary living and the quest to modernize.”
From here, Condition_Lab saw an opportunity to make a small insertion by introducing a timber structure that retains the Dong architectural DNA and could reawaken a sense of wonder in their heritage.
The project’s mission was to reconnect and inspire children while allowing them to appreciate their precious culture via direct engagement. “We took the traditional typology of the Dong “Galan” timber frame house and adapted it to a contemporary design, where elements such as stairs, walls, windows, and floor are reinterpreted.”
Condition_Lab collaborated closely with local carpenters and CUHK School of Architecture students. ‘Local,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘attentive’ are all key attributes of the project, and the library wouldn’t be possible without them. Through a process of participation, the firm gained the trust of villagers and the school principal, enabling them to create a social narrative that also helped find donors to sponsor the project.
Besides timber, the only ‘foreign’ material was polycarbonate, used in façade panels that allow sunlight to filter in and provide external views. Construction followed traditional Dong carpentry details, where ‘Dragon Joints’ composed of male and female interlocking parts are used as the main structural bond.
The value of this project lies in two fundamental lessons. “First, it relates directly to the children of Pingtan who, beyond enjoying playing in the library, have learned that their culture lives and remains relevant in this rapidly changing world.”
“The second lesson relates to the discipline itself at a moment when architecture, particularly in urban metropolises like Hong Kong, appears to have lost its soul to ever-demanding developers. That reality makes one aware of the social importance of architecture. Social impact does not require large amounts of financial investment, and design is not limited to high-end projects. To put it simply, architecture must have a purpose.”
Pingtan Children’s Library has been named World Interior of the Year for 2022. The project has been selected from a shortlist of 11 categories to win the final accolade, which was supported by Miele. Judges were impressed by the traditional craftsmanship of the design for children, “the real users of this delightful structure, where they can play on the steps, reach for a book or peak at their friends.”
All photos by Zhao Sai. Video credits: Milly Lam Man Yan, Paula Liu Ziwei. Courtesy of Condition_Lab.