China is a big country, and Trace Architecture Office (TAO) is leaving its mark all over it. The Beijing-based firm's portfolio includes a teahouse overlooking the Yellow Sea in northeastern Shandong province, a museum in southwestern Yunnan province near the Myanmar border, and a factory in Fujian province 140 miles from the Taiwan Strait. Hua Li, founding principal of TAO, prefers these projects because their locations 'still have diversity; they're not yet globalized.' These places have cultures that retain traces of local material usage and construction techniques and inform TAO's work. In turn, Hua's interest in leaving an architectural trace'both artistically and socially'sets his agenda and gives his firm its name.
' 'Trace' suggests our concern for the social commitment and environmental impact of architecture,' says Hua. He describes TAO's efforts both to manage its aesthetic ideal and its social concerns'balancing individual artistry with communal integrity, expressive forms with socially structured spaces, and global sophistication with local materials. To explain his outlook, Hua offers the example of his Xiaoquan Elementary School in Sichuan province. 'Instead of making a centralized, single building, we designed a cluster of small structures to create a kind of urban condition.' This helps form a community for children who both study and live at the school, as their parents have emigrated from Sichuan for work opportunities. At the same time, TAO inserted specific spaces to encourage exploration. For example, it cut an alcove into a wall and envisioned it as a seating area; children instead filled it with books to create an informal outdoor library. Hua commends the work done by the local contractor on the concrete structure, but 'it's not like a Tadao Ando concrete wall,' he says. He ground out some of the rough spots left over from the formwork. 'With this trace of fixing the problem, you see the process of working. I think it's more meaningful to see the history of the building.'