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In 2021, Shanghai Book City closed for renovations. The transformation of the prominent institution, built in 1998, coincided with the peak of COVID and social distancing, and amidst a continuing shift in attitudes around reading. Ting Yu, whose firm, Wutopia Lab, was hired for the revamp, blames the latter trend on our increasing addiction to our phones and our extremely online lives in general. His main goal: to create a bookstore sensational enough – and replete with other amenities and activations – to attract readers and non-readers alike.

The strategy has worked like a charm. His redesign of Shanghai Book City – with its gleaming perforated-aluminum façade, its plaza-like glazed entrance and its jaw-dropping interiors – has already garnered raves (online, of course) including by the city itself. “The bookstore is becoming a cultural landmark with a smart green concept, and is a successful case of urban renewal,” reads the municipal government’s website.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Wutopia Lab would expect nothing less than a complete reinvention. The firm creates dreamlike worlds that burst with playful forms and vibrant hues and has made a specialty out of turning libraries and the like into storybook settings. For Shanghai Book City, part of the initial brief was to update the 12,000-square-metre structure itself, which allowed for no more than 10 per cent of the building’s footprint to be given over to newly introduced safety measures, such as more evacuation stairs and washrooms. (The limit was also a challenge for Yu, who turned it into an opportunity: unable to remove a beam across what would become a fifth-floor atrium, as it would exceed the 10 per cent change allowed, he turned it into a skybridge.)

But the bigger vision was to flip the place from a “mere bookstore” into a “cultural complex” with various uses. “This cultural complex is a specific, nuanced, abstract vertical city, an idealistic representation of Shanghai,” says Yu. “It grows from the old bookstore, not severing ties with history but using books as the foundation for a new city.”

That is a lofty ideal – and Shanghai Book City aims to meet it from first approach. The glazed, double-height ground-floor entrance merges with Fuzhou Road (Yu sought to bring about the road’s revival as a cultural street) to establish a public square. Steps gently rise from street level to the entrance, which is also accessible via a ramp.

Inside, book lovers are immediately immersed in what Yu has called the Book Mountain, a bold-red shelving system and stage in one that can be used for book launches, exhibitions and other events. “The red Book Mountain becomes the first focal point in the pedestrian’s line of sight. From here, one can transition through escalators into the bookstore, which functions as a vertical city.

Whereas before the renovation, Shanghai Book City felt cavernous – the higher up you went, the darker it became – it is now suffused with light. Wutopia Lab’s masterstroke in this audacious redesign was to stack a staggered trio of atria that funnel sunlight all the way down to the centre of Book Mountain through skylights, generous apertures in the facade and glass floors.

Reached via zigzagging escalators, the double-height atria also carve out their own niches: as the square, the auditorium, and the theatre, respectively. Contrasting the glass floors, warm-timber bookshelves that soar to the ceilings and cut-away views across rooms evoke an Escher-like, labyrinthine sensation. Levels two to six house the reading area, the first and seventh floors serve as storage areas, and the eighth floor is dedicated to storage and cover displays.

This city, as Yu characterizes it, is wrapped in a 10,000-metre-long bookshelf, accommodating 470,000 books, that appears as a continuous façade. Outside of this wall are commercial enterprises ranging from tea houses to galleries and a gift shop to an art furniture store. “I have no fear of commerce, and my requirements for shop owners are akin to those established in ancient cities – they must respect the continuous façade of books in my city,” says Yu. “This ensures that different businesses are embedded in my city. This is what it means to build a city with books.”

As for the façade, Yu says, “I hope the bookstore can be read. I used a symbolic approach to create the façade, which is formed by stacking countless book spines.” The patterns inside the spines vaguely hint at “the changes on both sides of the Pujiang River. The past Bund represents the present Pudong, and even further, represents the imaginative future of Shanghai.” Lit from within, the perforated aluminum panels make the building glow like a “Crystal Palace,” the moniker that citizens first gave the bookstore upon its reopening, and that has stuck ever since.

Wutopia Lab Reinvents Shanghai Book City For Book Lovers – and Everyone Else

The behemoth bookstore opens anew with a stunning redesign – and the ambitions of a city landmark.

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