Reaching Li Xiaodong’s Li Yuan library (篱苑图书馆) which lies on the outskirts of Beijing takes a bit of a pilgrimage. We took a two hour bus to Huairou encountering a ragbag of tricksters who tried to get us to dismount at earlier stops along the way. Then it was another 45 minute cab up a twisty, stomach-bullying path up a mountain before we found ourselves in a small village where a little unnoticeable plaque pointed the way to the library. We drove past it the first time and almost missed it again the second time.
As we got out, the air smelt fresh, miles, quite literally, away from Beijing smog. After descending down a dirt path, the sleek lines of modernist architecture begin to emerge, all black railings and boxy angles. The library interior consists of a kind of organic patchwork quilt woven from glass and wood. Many of the square windows that sit at eye level are left bare so you can peer out, but the vast majority are covered by branches gathered from the local area. From the architect’s mouth, his aim was that it would blend into the locale rather than stand out as a big glass sore thumb.
It is, undeniably, a breathtaking space and I was thinking I could sit here for afternoons on end before I noticed a rather large bug sitting next to my hand. I swatted it with my umbrella (actually my friend’s as I didn’t want mine to be dirtied) and began to realize that when you did peer out of the glass windows, there were quite a few similarly unappealing bugs trapped in the glass slats. Upon closer look, the windows had been messily finished with sealant, probably executed when Beijing winter arrived which manages to permeate any kind of glass created thus far. The wood floors and tables had various grooves and uneven areas worn away by use, and its overall look despite the cutely minimalist square floor cushions, the unused tea set arranged on the main table was less shabby chic than beautiful despite its lack of conservation.
I had a similar feeling when I got right up close to the Bird’s Nest. From afar it strikes a commanding air on the Beijing skyline but once you get in, the sad bright red plastic chairs, little details like the labeling of the doors with large letters (while it is still a chore to find the correct door by which to enter) makes it more akin to a hospital than a grand stadium in atmosphere. We live in a generation of showchitecture. Once these kinds of buildings open, it creates a great flurry in the media, and they amass countless likes on Instagram. Appreciation of a building usually means the big, wide angle photo against a photogenic sky. A few six-legged inhabitants, won’t show up in a panorama. But once you’re inside your point of view is quite different.