Two libraries in remote locations on different continents demonstrate the impact of small projects on communities in need. Both buildings contribute to the civic realm and create spaces that encourage users to engage with the architecture—and have fun.

Photo courtesy Olivier Ottevaere & John Lin

The architects used an existing public plaza and retaining wall as key elements in their design.

The Pinch
Yunnan Province, China
Olivier Ottevaere & John Lin

Devastated by a major earthquake in September 2012, the Chinese village of Shuanghe in the southwestern province of Yunnan suffered neglect and then misguided governmental attention. After living in tents for up to 12 months following the disaster, residents were moved into mostly poured-in-place concrete houses, charmless structures that eschewed the region's traditional mud-brick-and-timber-roof architecture. Realizing that the new village lacked much in the way of social spaces, the government built a large public plaza, but made it a barren concrete surface with nary a tree or a bench to soften its impact.

Olivier Ottevaere and John Lin, professors at the University of Hong Kong who had studied together at Cooper Union in New York, came to Shuanghe at the request of Habitat for Humanity China, which has been active in Yunnan since 2002. On their first visit, Ottevaere and Lin spoke with villagers and learned of the need for a library. They also realized that the soulless plaza offered an opportunity: a free site with a 13-foot-high retaining wall that could serve as part of the library structure and reduce the cost of construction. 'We're always asking ourselves, 'What's the minimum we can do?'' says Lin, who worked on this project separately from his on-going collaborations with Joshua Bolchover and their firm Rural Urban Framework. 'The minimum here was to use what existed'the retaining wall and the plaza'and just put a roof on it,' explains Lin.

In the spirit of making the most out of a little, the roof serves multiple functions'enclosing the building's one large interior space, bridging the drop in elevation from a road above the site to the public plaza, and providing village kids with a wood-decked surface they can play on and slide down. Ottevaere and Lin designed the roof's supporting structure as a series of 17 exposed timber trusses, each one shaped differently so that together they define a sharply pitched, double-curved surface.

An aluminum waterproofing layer and timber decking rest on the trusses to form the roof. Inside the library, the trusses extend down toward'but don't touch'the floor to support floating bookshelves that run the length of the space. Perimeter walls and doors are made of translucent panels of polycarbonate, which bring in plenty of diffuse daylight and provide views to the plaza.

The architects approached the project, which they call The Pinch, as a way of connecting with the region's history of wood construction and demonstrating the material's future potential. They collaborated with a local timber manufacturer, which cut the wood members and shipped them to the site where they were assembled into trusses. They also engaged local carpenters, who are now working with them on other projects, including a viewing platform dubbed The Warp and a third one that will combine wood and poured concrete. 'We want to show that timber structures could be safe' in high seismic zones in China, 'and could engage the participation and pride of the local community,' states Lin.

Ottevaere and Lin worked pro-bono and assembled all the funding for the project ($21,000), with support from the University of Hong Kong and a Knowledge Exchange Project grant from the university, along with funding from the local government and donations of labor from the timber factory. Most of the structure was built in the fall of 2013 and final work on the interior was done in the spring of 2014.