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Jiakun architects | Hu Huishan Memorial House

Architecture Jiakun architects | Hu Huishan Memerial House

It takes the oft-seen tent as prototype in earthquake zone. The exterior is mortared in a way widely applied in Chinese urban areas, while the interior wall is painted with the girl’s favorite color pink, with remaining items of her short life hung on the wall.

Jiakun architects | Hu Huishan Memerial House

Jiakun architects | Hu Huishan Memerial House

Jiakun architects | Hu Huishan Memerial HouseLight penetrates down from the round skylight, making this tiny space pure and charming – this memorial is not only for one ordinary girl.

Hu Huishan was a female student in Class One, Grade 9 of Juyuan Middle School, Juyuan Town, Dujiangyan City, Sichuan. Born on 11 October 1992, she was buried in the Wenchuan earthquake, which struck at 2.28pm on 12 May 2008. The exact time of her death remains unknown. She lived for 15 years and was cremated on 15 May 2008. She enjoyed literature and dreamed of being a writer. 

I paid my first visit to the Juyuan Middle School on 15 May. I think I met Hu Ming and Liu Li then but I am not certain for I was in a state of shock. I returned on 28 May and found more parents mourning their loss, including a mother whose twin daughters had both been buried in the ruins. As I recall now, I was moved by Liu Li’s careful consideration in keeping her daughter’s milk tooth and Hu Ming’s toughness and pride. We talked for a long time; or rather I listened for a long time because there was nothing else I could say. It made me wonder who suffered the greatest sorrow in this earthquake? I think it must be the parents who lost their children. When leaving, I spoke to Liu Li, “Give birth to another baby girl and call her Hu Huishan too.” “Right!” Her eyes suddenly lit up with hope, “That is exactly what I thought.” These words created a mutual understanding between the couple and me. I decided to offer them long-term help as they embarked on their new life. I did not know how I could help them so I jotted down their contact details and, as I was doing so, noticed that Liu Li has bad asthma.

I telephoned Hu Ming the next day and asked him to help me collect the schoolbags scattered on the ground. Then, I had no contact with them for a number of days. Perhaps it was those psycho-interference programmes on TV that prompted my hesitation. I wondered about going, would I be opening the wounds in their hearts?

I went back to Juyuan on 21 June with a few things in mind. First, to collect the schoolbags and also to talk to them about getting Liu Li to see a doctor. To my astonishment I found them living in a makeshift tent. They had lost not only their daughter in the disaster but also their house. With them was their elderly disabled mother. The schoolbags were nowhere to be found for the tent area was a mess. Initially, I had taken it for granted that Hu Ming would keep the collected schoolbags at his home. He felt a little guilty so I quickly changed the subject. During our casual conversation, I gradually realised that my worries were totally pointless. They had lost their precious child and their hope but they still needed someone to listen to them, as just listening brings consolation.

I mentioned the idea that had been on my mind for days, which was to build a small memorial to their daughter. What came next was beyond my expectations. Their sincere gratitude for this tiny effort on my part made me reconsider the meaning of life. Before then I had been ashamed of my lack of skills, which prevented me from achieving anything practical; and before then, I had the suspicion that my idea might be too poetic in the present situation, as it would not bring them any practical help, but Hu Ming’s words dispelled my doubts. There is physical suffering for “worldly possessions” but inner consolation must come from the healing of the soul. If so, we can only follow our hearts and give whatever we can.

The Hu Huishan memorial is based on the archetype of the pitched roofs of the makeshift tents often used in quake-stricken areas. The surfaces will be plastered in the same way as the local rural houses. The inside and outside floors will be paved with red bricks, like those commonly seen in the houses in earthquake areas. The aim is to achieve a sense of simplicity, austerity and universality. A pure space set between the trees and open fields. Although small, it is enough to provide people with a collective memory of the earthquake. And, although small, it is the most meaningful work I have done in my entire architectural career.

Inside the memorial, the side walls will display a few memories of Hu Huishan’s short life: photographs, schoolbag, notebooks, milk tooth, umbilical cord… Her life left a small mark on society. She was not a celebrity just a normal girl – and a treasure for her parents.

A screen set against the back wall will show a number of videos recorded in Juyuan after I met her parents. The small space can accommodate a few people sitting and watching the screen, functioning much like a small family projection room. It will display nothing solemn or loud but something in memory of a flower maiden and something about how a family in despair strives to live on.

I do not know whether this memorial, which I donated and built, will be the smallest in the world but it was built for their daughter and for all the normal lives – because treasured lives are the very foundation of a revived nation.

Liu Jiakun

Location: Jian Chuan Museum Cluster, Anren Town, Sichuan Province, China
ArchitectsJiakun architects |  Liu Jiakun, Luo Ming, Zhang Tong, Sun En
Project name: Hu Huishan Memorial House
Structural engineering: Liu Su
Construction period: 2009.3~2009.5
Site area: 52m²
Building area: 19 m²
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