School of Architecture, CUHK

Condition_Lab’s Pingtan Book House blends heritage and innovation in a rural children’s library 

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Condition_Lab recently announced the opening of Pingtan Book House, located at Pingtan village of Hunan Province. Designed to mix play and reading within a traditional timber structure, the Book House is devised to inspire a love of both books and Dong culture in the local community.

From 2019 to 2021, Prof. Peter W. Ferretto and his team at the Condition_Lab, together with Professor Cai Ling as well as local carpenters in Pingtan, worked on the project with the belief that architecture can unite and revitalise rural communities. For years, Dong villages have seen their architectural heritage rapidly evaporate due to modernisation and the adoption of contemporary lifestyles. The Pingtan Primary School, where the Book House is located, is a prime example. Built 20 years ago, the school is entirely made of concrete, a material foreign to Dong culture, and equipped with only a modest library, despite accommodating more than 300 children from nearby Dong villages.

The research team saw the opportunity to build a new library based on a timber structure that retains traditional Dong vernacular architectural language, in hope of reawakening a sense of wonder in the Dong culture among schoolchildren and adults. Serving as a form of living heritage, the Pingtan Book House encourages local children to explore a space that recalls their rich traditions and to appreciate their culture by engaging with it up-close on a day-to-day basis.

Prof. Peter W. Ferretto, who has long been dedicated to research into rural village regeneration, said, ‘This is no ordinary children’s library. The Pingtan Book House is a place where kids read and play at the same time: a new paradigm for rural village libraries in China.’

The 180 square metres, three-storey Book House adopts the traditional typology of the Dong “Ganlan” timber frame house, through which elements such as stairs, walls, windows and floor were reinterpreted. The building consists of two intertwined spiral staircases, with walls dedicated to bookshelves and framed views of the landscape. Except for the façade panels, the entire Book House was built in timber, with traditional Dong carpentry details.

This project demonstrates how design can make a difference in a rural community while helping it reconnect with its history and culture: compelling evidence of the social significance of architecture. It also reminds us that the value of design excellence is not limited to high-end, large-scale projects, and that achieving meaningful social impact does not require large amounts of financial investment.

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