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The Water House, perched on a mountainside overlooking Lijiang, China, is typical of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong's award-winning buildings that "strive for tranquillity and harmony suggested by space, light and structural order."

“Design should reflect an overall balance of aesthetic quality, tectonic order, and precise detailing,” says the Chinese architect Li Xiaodong. “[Architecture] should add an uplifting spiritual characteristic of the project to the built environment.” While his philosophy might sound like that of Chinese dynasties past, Xiaodong’s work is anything but, characterized by clean lines and a contemporary take on historic forms, as at the Water House in Lijiang.

Perched at the foot of Yulong mountain, the Water House is set against a backdrop of dramatic snow-capped peaks and at once both merges with its landscape and stands out with quiet, elegant lines. It was, says Xiaodong’s atelier, “conceived as an interlocking series of contemplative, inward-looking courtyards, and has an open yet closed courtyard space. Closed in the sense it is ‘secured’ and ‘separted’ physically from the outside world by designed elements such as stone walls, reflective pools and levelling; yet it is open visually towards the outside environment.”

On paper, the Water House sounds utterly traditional: simple timber pavilions with tile-clad pitched roofs; lightweight, slatted walls; and a central courtyard filled with bamboo plants. Yet a few simple elements such as the glass walls, absence of any decorative details, and reflecting pools that surround the property transport the structure to the cutting edge of contemporary architecture. Despite its good looks, aesthetics are not what drives Xiaodong. “Fixed architectural styles are avoided, as they limit potentials to be unique and creative,” he says. Instead, Xiaodong responds to the site and local culture. At the Water House, that meant that creating “a contemporary building that that resonates with place and history” and from which “nature could be appreciated from within.”

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