School in Tibet

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The locally sourced materials help the modern-plan building blend in with the Tibetan landscape

Apple Elementary School, Taer Qin, A Li Province, Tibet, by Wang Hui

words Alex Pasternack

Across China, brash buildings are poking skylines and remaking cities in the distorted image of the West. But a four-day excursion from Beijing – almost as far as you can go without leaving the country – is the Apple Elementary School, in the Tibetan village of Taer Qin, which offers an alternate vision of China’s architectural future.

Situated 4,800m high, in the flat, lunar-like landscape of the Tibetan plateau and at the foot of a sacred mountain, this boarding school for the children of migrant herders is not only a revelation of ecological and culturally sensitive design; its very existence is an accomplishment. In a country increasingly known for its steel-and-glass dragons, it is a Tibetan fox: natural and playful, real but elusive.

When architect Wang Hui, the founder of Beijing-based practice Limited Design, first visited the site at the invitation of the project’s backer – a real estate developer and philanthropist – all he remembers was scree, the broken bits of rock that lie along the bottom of crags and cliffs. Even the nearby Mount Kalish seemed covered in it. In part because of the excessive cost of transporting materials, the rock would become Wang’s primary building material. That satisfied him.

“In my opinion, the more stones, the less concrete, the better,” he says, exasperated with the cacophonous construction going on back in Beijing. With none of the foreign education or experience that is common among many of China’s rising young architects, the 39-year-old from Xi’an represents a design approach that, if not more Chinese, at least feels more connected with its surroundings. “In the city today, all the buildings look like spaceships. The materials may be really advanced, but they don’t reflect the people who use them, or their relationship to nature.”

From a distance, the school’s squat shoebox classrooms and dormitories, spreading across the land like fingers, could be mistaken for organised outcroppings. Up close, their sparkling, textured grey bricks capture the roughness and fortitude of the Tibetan landscape as they dissolve into it.

Because the site is off the grid, and to cope with its harsh climate – temperatures can reach minus 20º C in winter – Wang opted for a mix of green energy solutions. He designed shallow rooms and low roofs to maximise daylight, installed a set of solar water heaters in the white concrete roof, and provided a method for burning cow waste for electricity. A small wind turbine is in the works. “These are all very environmentally friendly choices, which at the same time allow the architecture to blend into the natural environment,” says Wang.

The buildings’ users, 180 students and 20 teachers, look out through south-facing windows onto patches of pebbles with gentle slopes that are meant to encourage outdoor play. Walls extending from the buildings glide into the landscape, offering outdoor protection from harsh winds. On the facade, strips of colour are draped like temple flags to add a burst of fun.

“Because of the location, at the foot of this sacred mountain, the biggest challenge was how to make the building grow within this extremely special natural and cultural environment, and how to make children’s laughter grow too,” says Wang, who repeats the question that faced him throughout his design: “While respecting Tibetan culture, how can we find a way to represent it? We could express our respect for Tibetan architecture, but this is not all. We should also look to the future.”

While overseas designers in China often face urgings to reflect local tastes in their work, Han Chinese architects in Tibet work within an even more delicate context. Since the Red Army entered Tibet in 1951, China has redrawn the province’s cultural map by ferrying in factories, concrete, and a new population, much to Tibetans’ frustrations. A new train line, buoyed by promises of faster economic growth, has brought more tourists to already overburdened temples, where monks are ordered to study Communist tracts.

When protests to mark the anniversary of a failed uprising in 1959 turned bloody in March, with Tibetans in the capital of Lhasa rioting against police and ordinary Chinese, a crackdown ensued. Critics say that the world’s stare, even ahead of the Olympics, won’t still the government’s transformation of Tibet, or what the Dalai Lama has called “cultural genocide”.

If China is traditionally seen by Tibetans as occupier and destroyer, the Tibet of China’s imagination is often a poor landscape in need of rapid development. The Apple school itself was born when Wang Qiuyang, a Beijing developer who had previously hired Wang Hui, visited the area on a road trip in 2003 and witnessed the substandard conditions of local schools. With an initial investment of ten million Chinese Renmimbi, she helped fund the improvement and expansion of three schools in the area, and commissioned Wang Hui to design a fourth. Construction began the following year and while improvements continue, much of the building was completed in 2005.

Though Tibet is sometimes seen by intellectuals in Beijing – and indeed around the world – as an exhilarating if dangerous natural gem, Wang has no interest in romanticising the province. His first visits along bumpy roads into the frontier lands, some 1,300km from Lhasa, were marked by severe bouts of altitude sickness. To his dismay, he found the local architecture in disrepair and uninspired. “The locals see houses in Beijing on television, and this blue glass and white ceramic tile look becomes their life’s dream. But for the local environment, it’s very strange,” he says.

To determine an appropriate colour scheme for the school, Wang first visited a living Buddha, who only advised against red, the colour of temples. He chose to turn the colour problem over to the students and their teachers, who picked the paints themselves. “In this way, they got to participate in the architectural design,” he says.

Under the delicate circumstances, it is a credit to his design that the school not only embraces its setting but fades into it, both in its appearance and its ecological footprint. It’s a modest, leave-no-trace approach that has become part of Wang’s philosophy, a style that dispenses with style altogether.

For his first major project, the Mima Café, Wang was faced with one of Beijing’s most sensitive settings: the East Gate of Beijing’s legendary Old Summer Palace – once considered one of the world’s grandest gardens until it was left in ruins by foreign forces during the Qing Dynasty. Alongside minimalist white interiors, Wang’s new building literally reflects its surroundings using mirrored stainless steel exteriors. The authorities permitted construction as long as he was willing to tear it down at a moment’s notice; five years on, the cafe has become one of the city’s crucial intellectual havens.

“Architecture and art should serve the people,” Wang says. His soft-spoken, demure demeanour and indifference to self-promotion represent a contrast to some of the super-star egos behind China’s flashier modern architecture. “People are the same, regardless of poverty, regardless of colour, gender, their nationality. And designers aren’t above them.”

Wang’s own journey has been steady and deliberate. Instead of working at the state-funded studios that still churn out designs for government building in reams, once an obligatory part of the Chinese architect’s CV, Wang cut his teeth at Yung Ho Chang’s FCJZ Atelier after graduating from the Northwestern Technical University. He launched his own office, Mima Design, in 2003 and started a new company, Limited Design, last year. The name derives from his idea that “everything one does has, and should have, a limit.”

Wang is preparing a possible extension to the school, which is raved about by locals and has received a steady increase in applicants. When he considers doing a new project, he runs through a few principles. “Will it help me train my assistants, will it be a valuable lesson? Does it have a valuable existence within society? Is it innovative?” Against the frenzied backdrop of China’s growth, Wang admits he can’t always be picky. “But I’ve been really lucky. Most of the projects I’ve done are ones I really enjoyed.”

images Cao Youtao

top image The locally sourced materials help the modern-plan building blend in with the Tibetan landscape

The white concrete roofs contain a set of solar water heaters
The white concrete roofs contain a set of solar water heaters

The toilets. Shallow rooms and low roofs with skylights were designed to control sunlight in the region’s extreme climate
The toilets. Shallow rooms and low roofs with skylights were designed to control sunlight in the region’s extreme climate

The main construction material was handmade bricks composed of surrounding scree
The main construction material was handmade bricks composed of surrounding scree

The main construction material was handmade bricks composed of surrounding scree

The main construction material was handmade bricks composed of surrounding scree

The complex of rooms and exterior walls provides recreation spaces protected from the wind
The complex of rooms and exterior walls provides recreation spaces protected from the wind

Site plan
Site plan

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