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Project Profile


2005 Jury Commendation for Innovation

Yuhu Primary School and Community Centre



Project Title: Yuhu Primary School and Community Centre

Location: Yuhu Village, Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China

Size: 1,330 square metres

Cost: US$ 29,000

Responsible Party: Yeo Kang Shua, Chong Keng Hua and Stanley Lee Tse Chen

Client: Yuhu Elementary School

Heritage Architect: Li Xiaodong

Contractor: Zhao Xuexing

Date of Completion: 2004

Jury Citation

Located close to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lijiang, the Yuhu primary school project is to be commended for its beautifully nuanced design which evocatively reinterprets traditional architectural traditions within the context of modern building practice. The deft handling of local building materials and the innovative recasting of indigenous construction techniques has resulted in a powerful materiality which is deeply rooted in the local context while, at the same time, pushes the envelope of sustainable building design. Seamlessly accommodating contemporary needs, the design is the culmination of multidisciplinary research into vernacular architecture and urbanism, local history, and social context. The marriage of vernacular and modern approaches, in combination with careful community consultation, serves as a model for sensitive new construction in historic contexts vulnerable to modern development.


Yuhu Village is located in the foothills of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in southwestern China, about 15 kilometres north of the Old Town of Lijiang UNESCO World Heritage site. A village populated by the Naxi ethnic minority group, Yuhu is notable for its traditional architecture, much of it constructed from a clay-rich stone known locally as “monkeyhead”. The ubiquitous use of this material gives the village and its picturesque houses a strong sense of unity. Yuhu Primary School and Community Centre was constructed to solve the space constraints of the old Yuhu School, as well as to provide a social and cultural space for the community. The new structure is an annex to the village’s museum, which is the former residence of famed botanist and writer Dr. Joseph Francis Charles Rock (1884-1962). The project to construct a new school and community centre aimed to demonstrate how modern structures and facilities could be introduced into a community that has a strong sense of tradition and which possesses an assemblage of vernacular building types. The design of the school and community centre required sensitivity to the local cultural context and integration with the built environment. The completed design showed the potential of contemporary design in bridging the present and the past, thus contributing to cultural continuity.

Project History

The project to build the school and community centre was a joint effort by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore International Foundation (SIF). Recognizing the pressure on schools presented by the growing population in northwest Yunnan Province, and in view of the poor quality of existing school facilities, the SIF identified this area as having the greatest need for improvement and expansion of village schools. In 2001, the foundation identified Yuhu as a potential location for a school expansion project. The foundation, in cooperation with NUS, solicited additional support from both Singaporean and Chinese donors as well as from the local community. Notably, a village resident donated the land for the school-expansion project.

Project Scope and Framework

The design of Yuhu Primary School and Community Centre was the result of a research project conducted by NUS architects and architecture students, who visited the site with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the local vernacular architecture. They began by studying local traditions, materials, technology and resources, as well as social needs, the values inherent in local building traditions and the relationship between cultural identity and vernacular architecture. The students studied the scale, height, materials and plan forms of the village’s historic structures and discussed construction techniques with local residents. They also learned about environmental planning and ways of integrating new design into existing contexts. The modification of existing traditional buildings is a longstanding practice in the Yuhu community. The design for the new school and community centre aimed to replicate the character of ad hoc changes and additions embedded in the village’s vernacular architecture.

The grain racks mounted on the exterior of many traditional houses in Yuhu provided a primary point of inspiration for the students. This motif became the basis for the sun screens incorporated into the design of the school and community centre. These wooden screens in turn served as a continuous feature linking the new structure to the old buildings and masking the window openings of the new school building and community centre. The transition between the new buildings and the original structure was also conveyed through changes in materials, notably the use of stones of varying hues.

Students and faculty members interacted with residents throughout the design process and consulted local artisans and village leaders on ways they might best approach the assignment. The research project also involved meetings with school officials, teachers, students and residents to achieve a final design that all could appreciate.

Design and Materials

The final design of the new school and community centre comprised three small buildings. These were arranged in a “z”-shaped pattern rather than in the traditional quadrangle shape so as to avoid the removal of an old maple tree on the site. The resulting configuration created two courtyards. A staircase, providing access to the upper levels of two of the buildings, serves as a focal point for the courtyard of the community centre. This is of a modern design, standing in stark contrast to the traditional architecture. Staircases for Naxi village houses are usually small and located in a corner of the house. Taking the staircase out of the building created more classroom space. The staircase was constructed with reinforced concrete, clad in limestone, while steel cantilevered fins were inserted to hold the timber treads and risers. The Naxi believe that the mountains are the backbone of their culture, while water is the soul. The design of the school and community centre honoured this belief, incorporating stones from the nearby mountains and including a reflecting pool in the community centre’s courtyard. One of the most plentiful building materials in the area, in addition to “monkey-head” stone is a white limestone. This was used for mortar and walls. Round cobblestones were used for paving streets and pathways, as well as for water features.

A mortise-and-tenon system, which resists tensional forces in an earthquake, was chosen for the structure of the three buildings. Workers utilized local timber to create the building frames and windows. This was planed and cut in a traditional fashion, matching the work of the village houses. Both the sliding and casement windows were designed to allow as much light as possible to penetrate the buildings.Unlike traditional Naxi houses that sit on stone foundations, this project utilized reinforced concrete pad foundations with ground beams. Workers also reinforced the walls with steel bars and horizontal wire mesh at regular intervals, to enable the walls to resist lateral forces during the region’s frequent earthquakes. While the concrete was a relatively new material, the stone and timber were prepared in traditional fashion. Traditional grey clay tiles were used on the roof. New ways of composing and putting together traditional materials created an interesting juxtaposition of new and old, reinventing the traditional Naxi house for modern usage.

Important Issues

Structural considerations were of great importance since Yuhu is located in an earthquake zone. A design challenge was to construct a modern structure that could withstand lateral loading in this seismically active zone. As part of the design process, studies were conducted to explore ways of using traditional methods combined with modern technologies for the design of buildings in earthquake prone areas. A timber-frame system was designed to maximize flexibility. The timber-frame structure also meant that the walls are not load-bearing elements and are therefore independent of the timber structure. The timber lattice frames at the gable ends were also designed to prevent massive collapse of the stone gable walls should they experience earthquake forces.

Project Impact

The project made a conscious attempt not to hire commercial contractors for the construction and instead depended on local villagers. This choice provided villagers with an income, while allowing the project to benefit from the villagers’ knowledge of traditional building materials and methods. An additional outcome of this approach was the transfer of new technology to the villagers who participated in building the structure. This new technology included the principles of seismically appropriate construction appropriate for the local context. Since the project relied largely on traditional local building materials and techniques, local artisans can undertake the maintenance of the school and the community centre and easily carry out any repairs that might be required in the future.

Quote from the Project Team

“To be successful, the project must be designed and operated based on the local culture with strong emotional appeal to its users. Culturally-based design requires extensive sociological and anthropological studies, qualitative research with observations by the students.”