Tucked away up winding roads in the misty mountain village of Liangjiashan in China’s Zhejiang Province is a small see-through library standing on stilts.
From a distance, it looks practically suspended in midair among the squat, stone houses that surround it. Clear panels cover its facade, revealing the fore-edges of old books. The place is so quiet that the only sound is the steady flow of water from a nearby river.
It is the ideal spot for bookworms, but ironically, most of the village’s 34 elderly residents are illiterate.
"We just come here to look at the picture books because most of us can’t read,” says Tu Yue’e, a 64-year-old farmer who lives behind the library. “I can’t even write my own name."
But for Chen Lin, who designed the library, that wasn’t an issue. His aim is to breathe new life into the village, which has long been abandoned by younger generations, and to draw them back.
A modern twist on the village’s traditional architecture, the library is easily Instagram material, but it’s also subtle enough to blend into the ancient landscape of terraced farms and earthen houses.
Chen, who heads Hangzhou-based Shulin Architectural Design, took on the project last year as part of a greater initiative funded by the real estate company Hongfu Holding Group and the local government to place Liangjiashan onto the tourist map.
The Zhejiang-based Hongfu Holding Group also funded a project in Liangjiashan to build guesthouses, which Chen also designed, in in 2016.
Liangjiashan is one of thousands of villages left behind in China’s rapid economic rise. The country’s development in the past four decades created one of the largest rural-to-urban migrations in history. In the 1980s, 19 percent of the country was urban, according to the World Bank.
Now, the figure is set to reach 60 percent, leaving many rural dwellings empty and deserted. The government said in 2014 that it hoped to reach 70 percent urbanization by 2025.
Zhejiang Province, where the village is located, lies on the east coast of China, just south of Shanghai. Blessed with rich farmland and fisheries, the province is one of China’s smallest but most densely populated provinces.
Liangjiashan, despite its natural beauty, is easily overshadowed by many other famous tourist sites in the province, such as West Lake in Zhejiang’s capital, Hangzhou, and the Tianyi Pavilion, considered the oldest existing library in China.
The village dates back to the early 1600s, when farmers settled there to grow bamboo, tea leaves, rice, and Chinese cabbage. The people of Liangjiashan lead self-sufficient lives, but they are also poor, so much so that there’s a saying: “Liangjiashan, Liangjiashan... If you have a daughter, do not marry her here.”
“When I first visited the village, I felt this sense of primitiveness,” Chen says. “Everything seemed to be in harmony.”
It was important for Chen to not only preserve the village’s poetic beauty, but also its way of life and architecture. This meant matching the building’s style with others around it, and keeping energy consumption low.
See-through panels were used for the library’s walls to let in as much sunlight as possible and avoid using lights during the day.
Because the village gets regular rainfall, many houses in Liangjiashan have a hole in the roof that opens up to a small pond in a courtyard. The architectural concept is based on a Chinese idiom: “Nourishing water should not flow into the farmland of others.”
Chen incorporated this same design into his library. The tiles on the roof were handpicked by villagers from abandoned homes.
As for why the library was built on stilts, it was to make full use of the small triangular plot of land previously occupied by an old collapsed cowshed. This allowed Chen to create a spacious ground floor.
The books—ranging from novels and fashion magazines to children’s picture books and farming manuals—were donated by households and libraries across the province.
“In the past, we had to leave the village to read or buy books,” says Tan Xiannu, a 68-year-old who runs a small snack shop. “Now there are so many here.”
The village is still quiet throughout most of the year, but Liangjiashan, at least by government standards, has officially been placed on the tourist map.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has granted the village “3A Tourist Scenic Area” status. In China, sites are ranked from 1A, the lowest, to 5A, the highest, based on factors such as accessibility, safety, and cleanliness.
This year, more than 2,000 people visited the village during Chinese New Year, the busiest holiday period in China.
Facelift projects and small-scale design interventions such as these are becoming more common in China, but the countryside still remains largely unfamiliar for young architects. The projects are also considered challenging because they often deal with ancient structures in need of preservation.
But for Chen, the project was worth taking on because of personal reasons. He grew up in a farming village in Hunan province and has fond memories of being surrounded by mountains and rivers.
He says he feels a deep connection whenever he sees villages like Liangjiashan, and it is his hope that those who left will want to move back.
“Be it through building a library guesthouse, or refurbishing a space, my wish is that young people and children will want to come back to live in this village.
Then, this village will able to continue its natural cycle. It can flourish for longer, and maybe gradually start to resemble scenes of life from the past and gain back its vitality.”