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Apr / May 2016
Reading between the Lines

WRITER: Irene McConnell PHOTOGRAPHER: Su Shengliang

The latest project by Vector Architects speaks for a new generation of Chinese architects who are resisting the trend for mega-scale projects to instead produce human-centred, low-level and contextually driven architecture. And though it belies its actual function as a library that’s exactly the point.

 

If you were to drive three hours east of Beijing, you’d arrive at the Changli Gold Coast, famous for its Beidaihe resort, which, since Mao’s time, has served as a summer playground for the Communist Party’s upper echelons. But if you continue for another 15 kilometres down the coastline, you’ll come to a lesser-known resort that was formerly known as Nandaihe, now renamed Beidaihe New District, as part of a cultural regeneration plan that began in 2010.

There on the beach, hedged between a delightful new church and a huge Club Med complex that’s still under construction is the Seashore Library, designed by Beijing-based Vector Architects.

“Our brief by the master planners Sasaki Associates was to create a reading area at the front of the ocean while also providing a spiritual space for the community,” says Vector’s founder and principal architect, Gong Dong, who studied at Tsinghua, Illinois and Munich before then working for both Richard Meier and Steven Holl in New York.

Built entirely of concrete that’s imprinted with a horizontal woodgrain pattern, the 450-metre-square library looks heavy and impenetrable from the outside, like a monolithic fortress or better yet, a great shipwreck. But on the inside, the outward-looking space provides a direct interplay between water, space and light, akin to an exposed art gallery where the main work on show is the constantly changing nature of sea and sky. Then there’s the dramatically curved roof, which clearly takes its inspiration from waves crashing to the shore.

 

A tiered reading room occupies most of the two-storey library with a meditation area, activity room and bar positioned around the edges of the structure.

 

“The library is designed to resemble a rock, standing solidly and quietly,” explains Gong, “so it is as closed and protective as a shell, yet opens up generously to the ocean on one side. The design is focused on exploring the co-existing relationship between the space and the movement of the human body, the shifting light ambience, the air ventilating through the building and the ocean view.”

Facing the expanse of ocean, the largest space in the library is also its centrepiece: a striking, tiered reading hall with an enormous glass wall that spans both levels, provides uninterrupted views, and can be completely opened when the weather permits, thereby delicately negotiating the boundaries between inside and outside, architecture and landscape, manmade and nature. There’s also a resting area and bar on the ground level, and a meditation space and an activity room on the upper level, each with their own particular character.

Since there is no paved path to the entrance, visitors have to trek across 30 metres of sand to access the library. “One of the main concepts is to create an object in the field, to amplify the contrast between soft and ever-changing nature and the rigid shell of the library,” explains Gong. “Walking across the soft sand and entering the theatrical library, suddenly experiencing quiet and facing the framed ocean, is part of the experience that we hope the architecture offers.”

 

 

Each interior space is defined differently, based on the relationship to the elements – the ocean, the light and the wind – and how they enter the room. In the aforementioned, spectacular reading area, the ocean takes centre stage. Rows of desks on raised platforms face the drama of the sea beyond. “To avoid interruption by any structural component, all the roof loads are carried by the steel trusses running above the window,” says Gong, explaining how that enlarges the panorama. “On both sides of the steel trusses, we placed hand-crafted glass blocks. The glass wall softens the hardness of the steel.”

The handmade glass walls also allow light to stream through the room, as the sun makes its way across the sky and the ambience shifts accordingly. Additionally, tunnel-like circular light wells punctuate the ceiling, allowing vertical shafts of sunlight to infiltrate and these too, can be opened to provide natural ventilation.

 

Left: Three rows of differing glass characterise the east, sea-facing side. At the base are the pivoting glass doors, (which open the reading room to the beach), glass brickwork at the top (which provides varying degrees of natural lighting for the upper floors) and there’s a panoramic window in between. Right: The library has no paved path to its entrance, instead people must take a 30-metre walk over the sand. This was done to create a more direct relationship with the ocean.

 

The meditation space sits to one side of the reading room on the top floor. Two narrow openings, one horizontal and one vertical, allow light to filter in from east and west, capturing the soft luminescence of both sunrise and sunset in a contemplative setting. “In contrast to the open, public reading area, with its bright, evenly distributed light, the meditation space is enclosed and private, rather dim, with a sharp contrast between light and shadows,” says Gong. “In this room, a drastic roof curve pushes the ceiling down low and creates a low terrace on the rooftop. People can hear the sound of the ocean, though they cannot see it.”

The remarkable interior of the building is matched by the unexpected refinement of its concrete exterior. Vector Architects chose to inscribe the surface of the concrete walls with the grain of a timber framework, evoking the rippled markings left on the sand by the wind, waves and footprints. The effect not only visually lightens the concrete, it also provides a seamless transition to the quiet stretches of sand and the greyish ocean around it, lending the building an ephemeral sense, as though the traces might be washed away with the passing of time.

 

Left: The cast in-situ concrete walls are imprinted with the grain of formwork to mimic the rippled marks left on the sand by the wind and water. Right: The upper floors of the reading room are separated from an activity room by a roof area and meditation space, which also has a more secluded concave triangular area that feels like you’re in a ship’s prow.

 

The biggest challenge was to make sure the wood grain was visible without creating any flaws, such as cracks and air bubbles. “We tested three different concrete mock-ups to achieve the veins and patterns of the woodwork,” says Gong. “On the final one, we successfully imprinted both delicacy and roughness, like the natural texture of wood itself.” The effect is a clever compromise between the rich warmth of wood and the austere practicality of concrete. “Concrete resists corrosion by the invasive local weather conditions, and forms a shelter offering people a strong sense of protection, like being enclosed within a rock,” explains Gong.

The budget for the project remains undisclosed due to client confidentiality but whatever the cost, this impressive library is a stunning exercise in how architecture and the environment can be harmoniously melded in a unique and wonderful way, for the simple pleasure of a good read by the solitude of the sea.

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