A community library on the outskirts of Beijing that uses firewood collected from the village as one of its primary building materials was awarded the first Moriyama RAIC International Prize in Toronto Saturday night.

Raymond Moriyama, the noted Canadian architect who created the prize, awarded the $100,000 prize to China’s Li Xiadong. “He’s a genius and he’s pointing the way to the future,” Moriyama said in his remarks.

Li’s low-cost and highly-effective village library is a fitting tribute to Moriyama’s vision for a prize that would honour “great architecture than transforms us.”

The Liyuan Library is a five-minute walk from the town centre of Jiaojiehe, a Chinese village with a population of 300.

While the exterior of the building first looks plain to an unsuspecting visitor, every aspect of the interior of this unique public space is spectacular and seems to reflect the natural beauty in the hillside outdoors.

The stepped platforms of the reading areas provide clients with a secret hideaway, designed for enjoying a good book.

The library is heated by the sun in the winter. In the summer it is cooled by water from the river next to it.

A secret treehouse

Li Xiadong's prize-winning village library

The exterior of architect Li Xiadong's prize-winning village library.

Due to its rural setting and the unusual use of light streaming through the stick-constructed windows, the library is reminiscent of a tree house – perhaps much like the one Moriyama made reference to in his introductory remarks.

Asked what inspired him to take up architecture as a career, Moriyama recalled being sent as a child to live in an internment camp for Canadians of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War.

There, he built a secret tree house to escape the watch of the camp's guards. “That tree house, when it was finished, was heaven,” he said. In his private sanctuary, he had little to do but observe, and he became enchanted by the natural world. He described the lesson he learned as a 12-year-old in the camp as follows: “Diversity in nature works in total harmony.”

Honouring architecture that 'transforms'

Integration with nature has been a trademark of Moriyama’s distinguished career. Now 85 and retired, he first came to international attention in the 1960s with his design of Toronto's Ontario Science Centre, which was built in descending levels to take advantage of its setting in the Don Valley ravine. His other structures have included The Canadian War Museum, The Bata Shoe Museum, The Canadian embassy in Tokyo and numerous other international projects.

He first imagined a Canadian architectural prize 38 years ago on a career hiatus – on a trip to India, where he followed in the footsteps of the Buddha for 600 miles on a budget of just 18 cents a day.

Moriyama always intended for his prize to honour “great architecture that transforms us,” and the judging panel seems to have found exactly that in its first winner.

Li’s community library was built with a grant of $175,000 and was designed to improve the quality of life for a poor community. It has also brought tourism to the scenic area – both international and from nearby Beijing.

The SmartBeijing blog featured the library in a daytrip review last year and called it “magical, romantic and totally unique.”

Once construction of the library was finished, there were still no books, and no money for books – so the library operates on a principle that visitors donate two books for every book they borrow and take home.

For the library's architect, the book exchange is as much key to the philosophy of the building, as the cross-ventilation through the twigged walls, and the light moving through the building.

“The building becomes the platform for the exchange of ideas,” Li told the audience Saturday night in his acceptance speech.

The Liyuan Library

Visitors to the library are asked to donate two books for every book they borrow.

Moriyama’s intention was always to honour “modest” buildings with his prize, though he said he was “knocked out” by the library when the jury informed him of the winning entry earlier in the day.

The RAIC received submissions for projects located in nine different countries: Canada, China, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Tajikistan.

In addition to the main prize, three students in Canadian architecture schools each received a $5,000 BMO Financial Group Scholarship for their essays explaining why they want to become architects.

This year's essay winners are Loïc Jasmin from the Université de Montréal; Benny Kwok from Dalhousie University, and Shu Yin Wu from the University of Waterloo.

Liyuan Library by Li Xiaodong Atelier from Li Xiaodong Atelier on Vimeo.