Li Ye: SMALL Architecture & Architecture for Humanity Beijing

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| June 23, 2010

“Smart and Mini Architecture for Local communities and Low income,” or SMALL Architecture, was founded by architect, Li Ye, and is the Beijing chapter of Architecture for Humanity. Barely a year old, SMALL have undertaken a number of socially-led projects to offer design as a service to the often forgotten local Chinese communities. We met with Li Ye this month to discover more about the organization and working as an NGO in China.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us about SMALL Architecture. When was it founded and why?

Li Ye: SMALL was formally founded in July 2009. We provide an architectural service to those who require non-commercial work, and our clients are usually local communities who do not have much money (i.e. low income). In this context, we consider design as a social service.

The concept for SMALL was actually formulated in the summer of 2008 when I was ready to graduate from Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture. Most of my classmates chose paths like real estate or architectural firms for quick money or fame, but I felt I wanted to do something different. I took a break between university and “starting a career”, and tried to do something non-profit; I wanted to see what I would learn this way.

Fortunately, I found my partner, Xiao Zhen, who works in real estate. Also in our team are Hao Xue (law background), Rong Xiao and Huang Zheng (architecture) and Zara Arshad (design). We are currently focusing on small projects to fulfill SMALL’s vision.

Tulou Housing project, Fujian province.

Notes on Design: What is your relationship to Architecture for Humanity (AfH)?

Li Ye: SMALL was registered as AfH’s financially independent Beijing chapter. Chinese regulation, however, enforces very strict control over border cash flow. If you operate as a branch of a foreign firm or NGO, you cannot accept local donations or investment. This severely limits our work, so we decided to run the financial aspect of our organization independently. Our aim, however, definitely remains the same as AfH – bringing design services to communities in need.

Notes on Design: Why did you get involved with Architecture for Humanity?

Li Ye: When I graduated, I developed an interest in AfH and the work that they do. Initially, I wanted to join their volunteer project; after reading about their work and watching a speech by Cameron Sinclair, I was really touched. I felt that we shared the same goal – to use architecture to help communities left behind by development and capital investment. This is especially appropriate for China since our government is obsessed with new cities and real estate.

Notes on Design: Why did you choose a career in Architecture?

Li Ye: I love design, that’s all. Architecture can change the lifestyle of users for, perhaps, 50 or more years. Architects have a great responsibility in this respect.

Tsinghua University Dormitory Renovation


Notes on Design: How have your experiences so far helped shape your vision?

Li Ye: When I was a child, my family lived on the city fringe. We even grew crops and fruits. Now, 20 years later, I am using a MacBook and connecting with people from all over the world. This is China, a country in which you can experience a huge shift in lifestyle. I am fortunate to have witnessed this great renaissance in the past 25 years in China that has accompanied the economic boom. I have also lived through a period of rapid urbanization and globalization that has completely altered behaviour. The impact of this rapid social and economic development has helped to shape my mind.

Tsinghua University Dormitory Renovation – Bookbar


Notes on Design: What are your views about public space in China?

Li Ye: China is an introspective society, as it has a history of over 3000 years under monarchy. The needs of the common people were never considered as important; Confucius said that “people can be forced, but not told why.” The masses have never been encouraged to get involved with politics; therefore, open space in Chinese cities are mostly spaces of ritual (temples) or iconographic.

On a small scale, people prefer to build walls around their private spaces, for instance, Beijing courtyards, Suzhou gardens, Fujian tulou dwellings. They have very good inner spaces, sometimes quite large and green. However, they are kept private, resulting in 2 different systems: private-build and public-build. Privately, we have done too much. Publicly, we do too little.

Notes on Design: Tell us about some of your recent projects.

Li Ye: We recently completed a project based on tulou housing in a remote village in Fujian province (south China). Tsinghua professor, Li Xiaodong, initiated this project, and I was involved in the design group. The project proposed “acupuncture therapy,” to cure the disease of lack of public space by inserting a new building into the heart of the village. This solution not only introduced a new, functional building into the area, but also changed the lifestyle of the villagers. The space we developed became a place for social gathering, and has also, on occasion, been converted to a classroom. The project has recently been listed for an Aga Khan award.

Tulou Housing project, Fujian province.

Our latest project involved renovating Tsinghua University dormitories. Previously existing as only corridors and rooms, the idea of public space did not exist here. Our work exploited unused space on each floor and transformed it into a book bar or common room etc – places to stimulate social dialogue. The furniture we introduced into the space also had to offer a multitude of functions; to be used in different ways by different people and offer an element of flexibility. We explored new materials, like stretchable paper adobe, one-way mirror vinyl, and even recycled old books as bricks.

Tsinghua University Dormitory Renovation


It is interesting to note that operation in China is much easier in a top-down dynamic. Students at Tsinghua had actually highlighted the need for renovation many times before, but there had been no response. As soon as we had obtained the agreement to reinvent the unused space from above, the process flowed quite easily. I always look to create democratic instances in a non-democratic way; what matters most is the result and how people can enjoy the changes we implement. This is what we stand for.

Notes on Design: What are you working on at the moment?

Li Ye: After finalising the Tsinghua project, the next goal is to complete a proposal for an education center in Inner Mongolia. The education center is located in the desert, and is intended for exhibitions and to educate local primary and middle school students about desert forestation.

Education Center Proposal, Inner Mongolia


Notes on Design: What work are you most proud of so far?

Li Ye: I am most proud of the Tsinghua project so far because, from concept proposal to construction, from spatial design to material application, we were involved in the entire process. Architects always seek a bigger say in a project, and the Tsinghua dorms allowed just that; it is full of creative materials, furniture and graphic design and other customised elements. Furthermore, the university wants to set an example via their “reform” of dormitory space. Through this project, I believe that they have developed a new understanding of both architectural work and public space. This is a very good sign, not only for SMALL, but also for Chinese society in general.

Tsinghua University Dormitory Renovation


Notes on Design: What does the future hold for SMALL?

Li Ye: The problem for SMALL, like any other NGO or NPO, is finding sustainable project resources. At the moment, the projects come about sporadically, but Chinese society is also not ready for this kind of work. Our clients often expect us to finish the design quickly, and quality is not always enforced. Most clients want efficiency, and the designing part is considered very light in a project.

I think the focus for SMALL in the next 3-5 years is accumulation: gathering a good database of architecture for low-income and local people. Creating architecture carefully, continuously and with dedication. I am not worrying about the future.


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