A library that’s also a culture and arts hub for a whole community
Just like a book with points to ponder, references, reminiscences, and a cover to protect its pages, Shanghai Library East is a work to be read in one sitting. Designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (SHL), the library recently opened its doors in the Chinese city. The exterior of the building is a tribute to the beauty of marble and its veining, while the inside pays homage to the unique irregularity of Taihu stone. But the library is also a gift from the city to its people, a place where you can get back in touch with yourself – so much so that Chris Hardie, design director of SHL, described it as a “ ‘third space’ – a highly personal place that exists between our home and our work.”
The library is a point of reference for the community as well as an artistic, cultural, and technological hub. An expression of how the role of libraries has changed, this contemporary library is first and foremost a cultural center open to diverse fields, traditions, cultures, and historical periods. It can be seen as an intelligent hybrid, where performances and events can be enjoyed as much as books.
This huge library has flexible, modular, and open spaces that include a theater, an exhibition space, and landscaped reading rooms. Visitors enter via a large atrium dominated by the warm tones of materials such as bamboo, oak, and terrazzo. Above this space, which plays the role of a central square, the upper floors asymmetrically overlap and interconnect one on top of the other. Looking up, it’s impossible to find one perspective the same as another.
This multiplicity of forms recalls the image of Taihu stone, also known as the scholar’s rock, often found in Chinese gardens. Frequently depicted in paintings and woodcuts, this stone has an ancient history in Chinese culture and traditions as an object for contemplation and meditation, but also as a collectible status symbol. Taihu stone is also regarded as a muse for artistic creativity and intelligence, and are used as meeting places for artists. The shapes of the stones are unique and curious, marked by numerous hollows created by erosion by water and weather. With their shapeshifting appearance and changing colors through the day, they’re regarded as a way to feel connected to nature.
“This library was a unique opportunity to reinterpret a cherished Chinese symbol through architecture and design,” says project architect Jing Lin. “In ancient times, scholars would gather around Taihu stones, deriving inspiration from their edges, curvatures, canyons, and hollows, which seem to shift when viewed from different angles. Similarly, as visitors move about Shanghai Library East, their views of its interconnecting spaces shapeshift.”
The shapeshifting interiors are reflected on the outside with the windows organized in horizontal bands of different levels of transparency. Engraved with fifteen different motifs inspired by the veining of marble, they allow daylight to penetrate deep into the building, bringing illumination to both the spaces and, symbolically, the mind. From inside, the windows open onto views of the greens and blues of the surrounding nature, beginning with the largest green space in the city, Century Park. The same is true in the children’s section of the library, with its large ribbon windows that look out onto a central courtyard.
Shanghai Library East can be seen as a place for artists created by for artists, with various artists involved in the design process, including Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Shen Fan, Zheng Chongbin, Emily Floyd, Ni Youyu, Mia Liu, Plummer & Smith, Simon Ma, and Yang Zhenzhong. They created several site-specific installations intended to provide inspiration for everyone visiting the library for books, events, and conferences.
“Our creative approach to library design is founded on the idea of libraries as inclusive cultural institutions deeply embedded in their context,” says SHL partner and design principal Elif Tinaztepe. “For this reason, the entire community is vital to help visions become reality through open, honest dialogue.”
Location: Shanghai, China
Architects: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
Gross Built Area: 11.500 m2
Site Area: 3.950 m2
Client: Shanghai Library
Local Architect: Arcplus Institute of Shanghai Architectural Design & Research
Landscape: ASPECT Studios
Structure Consultant: Schlaich Bergermann Partner
MEP Consultant: Buro Happold
Sustainability Consultant: transsolar
Signage Consultant: 2 x 4
Light Consultant: LEOX
Façade Consultant: Shanghai DHD Curtain Wall Design & Consulting, Shanghai Institute of Architectural Design & Research，DS-plan
Contractor: Shanghai Construction No.4 Group
Artists: Xu Bing, Shen Fan, Gu Wenda, Zheng Chongbin, Yang Zhenzhong, Ni Youyu, Mia Liu, Simon Ma, Emily Floyd and Plummer & Smith
Public Art Consultant & Manufacturer: UAP (Urban Art Projects)
Photography by RAWVISION Studio, Tian Fangfang and ZY studio, courtesy of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects