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An example of the work of architect Li Xiaodong

Canada's new global prize for architecture launched with a flash this weekend - turning a spotlight on a modest library in rural China that is also "wondrous to be in."

The Moriyama RAIC International Prize awarded $100,000 to the Chinese architect Li Xiaodong for the Liyuan Library at a gala for 350 people at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto Saturday. Barry Johns, the head of the prize's selection jury, called it "a modest yet powerful building that makes architecture from a deep understanding of place, materiality, form and light."

The prize, one of the richest in the world, was created by the architect Raymond Moriyama and his wife Sachi, along with the organization that represents Canadian architects: the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, together with its the RAIC Foundation.

The prize also honoured three students with $5,000 awards: Loïc Jasmin of the Université de Montréal; Benny Kwok of Dalhousie University; and Shu Yin Wu, University of Waterloo.

Li, who also teaches at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, beat out entrants from nine countries to win. He is a relatively obscure figure; he has built relatively few projects, though he has won awards for two schools, both inexpensive buildings in rural villages.

His work builds on Chinese aesthetic and intellectual tradition. In an interview, Li called himself a "regionalist" of a certain kind: not copying the forms and motifs of traditional buildings, but addressing local needs in an innovative way. "You try to understand the conditions of the site, and then make a conversation," he said, "try to engage the site with the form of the building - which is not as it was before."

The library is located in a village called Jiaojehe, about 90 minutes outside Beijing; the town houses fewer than 200 people. In this still-rural setting, Li designed a simple building, less than 2,000 square feet, that is wrapped on the outside by a lattice made from fallen branches; under this raw wood is a glass facade, and inside that is a robust wooden structure that defines the walls, ceiling and a network of bookcases and seating on the interior.

It is visually striking, but very simple to build and run; it has only a fireplace for heat, no electric power or running water. The design controls sunlight and allows air to circulate through and cool the building in the summer months. It cost $185,000 (U.S.) to build.

It has also served its purpose well. Li's library building serves the local population with a simple model - bring two books, take one home - that has kept it very busy since its opening two years ago. It has become a local tourist attraction and encouraged visits to the village.

All of these qualities made the building a good fit for the Moriyama prize, which looks at buildings that have been finished for at least two years and looks for "architecture that is transformative, inspired as well as inspiring, and reflects the humanistic values of justice, respect, equality and inclusivity." The prize is a new entrant on the global field of architectural awards; the other major global award, the Pritzker Prize, is a lifetime award that goes to established stars.

The Moriyama Prize aims to be something else. The Liyuan Library - inexpensive, attentive to climate and to its community - has qualities, Johns said, that represent the ideals of the prize. In picking the winner, the jury "moved away from object buildings" to ones that were "more self-effacing," he said. "These buildings, and this one, has something Canadian about them."

The next Moriyama Prize will be awarded in 2016.