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Reading Poetry in the Old Church : Sinan Books Poetry Store

photographed by
CreatAR Images
materials provided by
Wutopia Lab
edited by
Kim Yeram

Kim Yeram (Kim): The old St. Nicholas Church has been transformed for its new life as Sinan Books. Please detail the churchs historical significance. 

Yu Ting (Yu): This former Orthodox Church at no. 16 Gaolan Road is the second in a grouping of outstanding historical buildings in Shanghai. It was built in 1932, but has not been used as church for a long time. Over the past few decades, it was used an office space, factory, warehouse, canteen, residential building, and later a club and restaurant. Finally was abandoned and slowly fell into disrepair. Various traces of the additions and decorations made to this old church over its many different lives have been overlaid and integrated as one. 


Kim: Why was this building chosen as the site most suited to ambitions of the bookstore? 

Yu: The company, who rent the church, mainly operate poetry bookstores. They run bookstores that value specialist books of particular genres such as sports and drama.






Kim: The Shanghai Historic Building Protection Affairs Center, which was previously responsible for managing the operations of the church, stipulated a few conditions with regards to the construction—namely, that you were required to leave the architectural façade, structure, typical floor plan, and the interior decorations of the church unaltered. How did your design strategies work around these restrictions? 

Yu: The entire project could only be conducted with the permission of the Shanghai Historic Building Protection Affairs Center. No existing façade, structural system, basic floor plan and distinctive interior decoration of the building could be changed. The façade and layout, the newer and historic decorations on the walls and dome, could also not be altered in any way. So the most important thing was to remove these things of lesser value, and to keep it simple. We had to remove unnecessary walls and floors, such as the steel structure interlayer built in the 1990s. The building space was cleaned up to reveal its original image and to maintain the height of the main hall, and we shortened the extension on the eastern side to align it with the original structure. We also traced and worked with the original materials, such as pillars, floral decorations, walls, and flooring. After decades of wear, only the concrete layer was left in the main hall. A small part of aged stone floor was discovered in the side hall, while others were terrazzo added in the 1970s. After repeated grinding and cleaning of the floor tiles, the oil pollution was still faint, and as such it has become understood as a memory of the structures manufacturing past. 


Kim: Regarding the Centers restrictions, were there any drawbacks, or advantages, as far as the consequences for cultural heritage preservation?

Yu: The Committee aims to focus on the restoration of cultural heritage and this enables historic features to be enjoyed by people today. But there are of course drawbacks in this situation. Many historic buildings have their purpose when faced with modern society. Introducing new spaces and functions to these historic buildings can bring about certain difficulties in the design. The clearer division of functions and the integration of new functions with old buildings need to be considered more carefully in design. 


Kim: The design theme, a Church in a Church, was informed by your hope that the bookstore would serve as a sacred space. Please detail how you decided to interpret the space in this way and what kind of spatial elements were employed to create a bookstore that would evoke the ambience of a church. 

Yu: Church in a Church could be interpreted as an independent spirituality, as a respectful integration with the religious aspects of the old site. Given the fact that the dome could not be transformed, I used bookshelf to create a new structure typically to that of a Church using the old Church façades. It is a sanctuary for modern people as well as a sanctuary of faith drawn from the past. The scale and space of the steel plate structure creates a vertical space, welcoming a snese of elevation similar to that one experiences in a church; people are small, the ceiling extends far away on high. The rhythm of numerous of steel plates also help to support a sense of the sacred.


Kim: You tend to rely on prefabricated modular structures as a way of manufacturing and assembling a wide range of materials in your architectural creations. Slow Yangzhou Xinhua Bookstore and Underground Forest each employ acrylic and wood, whereas Sinan Books uses steel plates. How did you decide that this method and material would be best suited to this project?

Yu: We just chose the right material for the space. Part of the reason for using steel structure was to bring this historical building and its construction more in line with its fire protection demands. Its also an innovative approach to the materials; I chose to use plated steel plates other than the stone that characterised the historic site. The partition and the bookshelf stands are welded as a steel plate grid system. They interact with each other to form an inner space—a poetry bookstore. The steel bookstore and masonry church work in unison. In this case, our workers had to first cut 5mm steel plates into 128 standpipes, 640 large steel plates and 2,921 small steel plates for 23 layers of crossbars according to the drawings. After correct pre-assembly outdoors, the pieces were moved inside and welded together.









Kim: Sinan Books displays more than 1,800 books of poetry. For a bookstore dedicated to poetry, the ways in which visitors would choose and read poetry must have been at the forefront of your design. Was there a particular way you hoped visitors would enter the bookstore to experience the books? 

Yu: The atrium of the bookstore is a multi￾functional space. The round table in the centre can be split and moved to the sides. Readings, lectures and book launches can be held in this new space. This allows people to experience books in a deeper way, through communication with each other. In the silver bookstore, a balcony was transformed into a golden pulpit. Here you can see how the steel bookstore and the old masonry church are interwoven without touching. The poet can recite their verses aloud in this noble and resonant place. 


Kim: The café and reading space have a look distinct from that of the areas in which books are stored on shelves. What kind of spatial effect did you intend to achieve by visually distinguishing these areas? Please describe your experience when working on the spatial design of this project.

Yu: The design aimed to distinguish between the rest spaces and the reading spaces. People come to these two spaces for different purposes. The distinction between the two spaces protects the purity of the reading space in the bookstore, in which people can have a better reading experience. 


Kim: Wutopia Lab has designed bookstores of all sizes, from suburban mom-and-pop stores to large-scale lounge-type bookstores found in city skyscrapers. What, in your experience, have you discovered to be the issues or trends in​ the design of bookstores, particularly in large metropolitan areas in China, such as Shanghai? 

Yu: Nowadays, as it is difficult for bookstores to make a profit, they tend to be compound bookstores combining cultural and creative industries and café. Whether the bookstore is big or small, delivering a single, distinctive story is the most important thing.





Yu Ting
Yu Ting is the chief architect and co-founder of Wutopia Lab, co-founder of Lets Talk, Urban Humble Space Revival Plan and the winner of the FA Emerging Architect Award. He is a Professor level senior engineer, who received his bachelor's degree in Architecture from Tsinghua University and his Ph.D. in architectural design and theory from Tongji University.