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Buildings stand still. The connection to place is one thing that distinguishes architecture from the other arts. Yet today, if you’re interested in architecture, you may look at 10 new buildings in a day without leaving your desk – a constant glut of new “projects,” all well-lit and precisely framed, in a shallow, swift river of images.

It’s quixotic to try to stand against this unstoppable current. Yet a new prize, run and funded by Canadian architects, is trying to do just that: focus our attention on design that works well in the world and not just in processed photos. Last Saturday, the Moriyama RAIC International Prize was awarded for the first time; the winner, who took home $100,000, was Beijing architect and academic Li Xiaodong, for a library in rural China.

Li has designed a lovely building, the Liyuan Library, that hits all the right notes; it was built on a shoestring, in the obscure village of Jiaojiehe, to serve the local community. It is small, sensitively designed for the local climate, runs without electric power or mechanical ventilation, and is, after two years, a vibrant community institution: Locals borrow books on an informal system of bring-two-take-one-home. The shelves are overflowing.

The organizers of the prize – the architect Raymond Moriyama and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, the professional organization that represents Canada’s architects – hailed the library for all these reasons. They chose well. Li did not design the library simply as a photo-ready object in the landscape, but very much in keeping with the prize’s stated values: as design that is “transformative, inspired as well as inspiring, and emblematic of the human values of respect and inclusiveness.”

This ethic is drawn from the experience of Moriyama, the octogenarian whose life story took him from a British Columbia internment camp during the Second World War to international success. At 85, he is clearly proud of the award that bears his name; as he explained at the gala, he wanted to help Canadian architects engage with the world and become, as a group, “less parochial.”

There is a tension here between doing good and self-promotion. The prize’s large payout and global scope could, as intended, put Canadian design on the map. There are few other international awards for architecture, and the U.S.-based Pritzker Prize – often called architecture’s Nobel – is a career-achievement award. (There was relatively little international press coverage of the Moriyama RAIC this week, which suggests the prize organizers need to dramatically improve their PR efforts.)

The Moriyama RAIC honours substance over style. Barry Johns, the head of the RAIC, implied that there’s something Canadian about “modest” buildings that serve their community.

But how does any architect achieve that goal in the real world, while also maintaining design excellence? Like the prize, the Liyuan Library is a bit of a paradox. It exists only because the architect drove the project as a work of philanthropy. Li discovered the village through friends who live there (the area is becoming a weekend getaway spot for affluent Beijingers); when he won a grant from the Hong Kong-based Lu Qianshou Trust to help transform rural China through design, he chose this site and initiated the library’s construction.

Li, who now teaches at the elite Tsinghua University, has an international outlook; he has a PhD from one of Europe’s top design schools and has taught in Singapore. He is thoughtful about his place and China’s place in the world of architecture. After years of research, he began building with a certain kind of regional outlook – not borrowing old forms, but melding traditional ideas about space and building with contemporary technology and today’s way of life. This is a minority view in China but he does have peers, including Wang Shu, who was the surprise winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2012.

As Li told me in an interview, his work is globally influenced but philosophically Chinese. “The Western design philosophy comes from designing an object that stands in the landscape, seen from a perspective point of view,” he said. “When you see a Western presentation of architecture, it’s always a perspective. In China, it is by bird’s-eye-view, because with perspective, you don’t see a space behind a space – and Chinese architecture is all about a layering of space, not about an object.”

The library itself reflects this view. It is a long, sleek box that unfolds as a line of interconnected spaces, with wooden floors and seating platforms that connect with the hefty pine grid that supports the walls and ceiling. That timber matrix is wrapped in a skin of glass, and on the outside by a tough cloak of branches retrieved from the ground nearby – making the building blend quite literally into the landscape.

It is visually stunning. And it has already appeared on the major design blogs. It is a tourist attraction, and as Li told me, it has also been a location for TV commercials for Apple and BMW – the income from which goes to the library and community.

A member of the prize jury, the Montreal architect Maxime-Alexis Frappier, told me a story about their trip to the library; there they met an elderly man, Zhou Shumin, who showed the visitors around and cooked them some barbecue. Zhou, who lives in the village, serves as a volunteer caretaker for the library, and he also helps out the architect by taking pictures. One of his pictures, of the library on a frosty winter day, is irresistible – the kind of image that helps turn any building, however solid and meaningful it is in person, into an icon.

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