Pinghe Bibliotheatre by OPEN Architecture finds curious inspiration in the blue whale

A striking blue colour and a wave like thick sheath wrapping around its three-sided layout lend this library-cum-theatre in Shanghai its famous nickname, ‘the blue whale’.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Mar 03, 2021

Anchored on a significant corner of China-based OPEN Architecture’s latest project, the Pinghe Bibliotheatre is defined as the very core of the Shanghai Qingpu Pinghe International School, an educational institution designed as a ‘village’. The program for the building stems from the elaborate thought behind the school campus itself: breaking away from the “school as a megastructure” pedagogy, especially given that the campus was to house over 2,000 students from ages three to 18. The architects dreaded a student having to spend such extended periods of time in a single building, and hence decided to ‘deconstruct’ a typical school’s spatial programming, on that scale, and group them into smaller, distinctive buildings, forming a village like campus, housing wisdom at every corner. The Pinghe Bibliotheatre is one such corner in the campus, overlooking the intersection of an important city highway and an ancient canal.

  • The building’s façade is lined by circular and pill shaped fenestrations, akin to a ship’s portholes | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The building’s façade is lined by circular and pill shaped fenestrations, akin to a ship’s portholes Image: Jonathan Leijonhufvud
  • The circular fenestrations lend natural light to perambulatory reading spaces | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The circular fenestrations lend natural light to perambulatory reading spaces Image: WU Qingshan

The 'bibliotheatre', a curious combination of the building typologies of a library and a theatre: that of an edifice for serious academic dispensation and an arena for the performative arts, is a characteristic building that facilitates this seamless coming together like an “interlocking Chinese puzzle”. It is the architects’ solemn belief that the distinct, even playful form of the building, and the free flowing spaces it harbours would not only cultivate the students’ interests in reading and performing, but also encourage their imagination to roam freely in the “ocean of knowledge”, while referring to the expansive Qingpu Pinghe school campus.

  • The building’s sloping roof has oblique skylights and a large, circular oculus that lights up the library’s stepped central reading space | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The building’s sloping roof has oblique skylights and a large, circular oculus that lights up the library’s stepped central reading space Image: Jonathan Leijonhufvud
  • The library’s stepped central reading space is the building’s sacred heart | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The library’s stepped central reading space is the building’s sacred heart Image: CHEN Hao

“The marriage of library and theatre came from the architects’ belief that the act of extensive reading and thinking, and the act of expression through performances, should be critical components of education, but are often ignored in test-driven educational systems,” states an official release. “The distinctive qualities of these two programs and the respective physical needs, came to inspire the design of the building”.

  • The library’s spatial layout takes into account varying degrees of introversion for readers | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The library’s spatial layout takes into account varying degrees of introversion for readers Image: Jonathan Leijonhufvud
  • Reading room with open stacks along the periphery of the building | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    Reading room with open stacks along the periphery of the building Image: Jonathan Leijonhufvud
  • The library’s terraced seating is responsive to the theatre’s proscenium beneath | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The library’s terraced seating is responsive to the theatre’s proscenium beneath Image: WU Qingshan

Part blue whale and part ocean liner, there is suitably a certain visual weight and mass to the building that its openings and fenestrations do not necessarily contradict, akin to the largest animal known to mankind, or to that of a large floating vessel. The theatre is also lined with circular windows and elongated, pill shaped fenestrations near its stairways, akin to a ship’s portholes. For additional lighting in the reading areas, an essential, accentuating property of this typology of spaces, angled skylights springing from its sloping roof direct illuminating daylight into the extensive library. Animating the library’s central reading area with a light highly evocative of the sacred, a large oculus, yet another reminiscence of the Pantheon, diffuses light in the central, stepped reading area, defining and reflecting the concentric layout of the space.

  • The school’s café is amply naturally lit | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The building’s café is amply naturally lit Image: WU Qingshan
  • The reception and lobby area prefacing the library | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The reception and waiting area prefacing the library Image: Jonathan Leijonhufvud
  • The lobby’s interiors too contrast the building’s dominant blue scheme with a neutral shade of white | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The lobby’s interiors too contrast the building’s dominant blue scheme with a neutral shade of white Image: Jonathan Leijonhufvud

The proscenium of the theatre and the black box occupy the lower and deep central part of the building, owing to their requirement of virtually no natural light and strong acoustic insulation, while the library is elevated above these. In accordance with a sequential rise and drop of the theatre’s spatial volumes below, the interestingly defined reading spaces are arranged in a terraced layout at the periphery, culminating at a central reading area, highlighted by the circular oculus on top. The peripheral, ascending layout also takes into account the highly intimate, partly introverted nature of reading as an activity, and includes many comfortable reading zones carved into the perambulatory corridors as well. Apart from these, a sunken roof garden proves a breath of fresh air for kids, along with an outdoor reading area when the weather permits.

  • The lobby’s interiors too contrast the building’s dominant blue scheme with a neutral shade of white | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The library’s sunken roof garden proves to be a haven for outdoor reading Image: Jonathan Leijonhufvud
  • The theatre is nestled in the building’s centre owing to acoustic and natural light isolation requirements | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    The theatre is nestled in the building’s centre owing to acoustic and natural light isolation requirements Image: CHEN Hao

Contrasted with that, and adding to the dichotomous dexterity of the bibliotheatre, the experience of performing in the theatre happens to be of an extroverted nature, enshrining a free sense of expression. The interiors of the theatre propound that duality through the use of warm wood panels and deep blue walls. The element of theatricality is thus ascribed into the very entrance to the building leading directly to the theatre: the “mouth” of the whale or the risen lower deck of a large ship, cut diagonally onto the mass. Contrary to the library’s central oculus, a state-of-the-art, comprehensive artificial lighting system lines the theatre and the black box in line with their functional and aesthetic requirements.

  • Ground floor plan | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    Ground floor plan Image: Courtesy of OPEN Architecture
  • Spatial hierarchy diagram | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    Spatial hierarchy diagram Image: Courtesy of OPEN Architecture
  • Longitudinal section | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
    Longitudinal section Image: Courtesy of OPEN Architecture

Broadly conceived as a cultural centre for not only the school but also the surrounding communities, the Pinghe Bibliotheatre finds strategic placement at the corner of the Qingpu school’s site, its secondary entrance, so that the building may also be used independently. Built with the hope of becoming “the social energizer that brings together parents and community members”, the Pinghe Bibliotheatre successfully toys with a potential fusion of the stylistic and thematic, socio-cultural understanding and aspect of what architecture may come to be for its young inhabitants.

03 mins watch The Pinghe Bibliotheatre, a curious and unique fusion of a library and theatre | Pinghe Bibliotheatre| OPEN Architecture | STIRworld
The Pinghe Bibliotheatre, a curious and unique fusion of a library and theatre Video: Courtesy of OPEN Architecture

Project Details

Name: Pinghe Bibliotheatre
Status: Completed
Years: 2016-2020
Location: Shanghai, China
Program: 500 seater theater, 150 seater black-box theater, Library, Café
Architecture and Interior Design: OPEN Architecture
Principals in Charge: LI Hu, HUANG Wenjing
Client: Shanghai Tixue Education and Technology Co., Ltd.
Site Area: 2,312 m²
Total Built Area: 5,372 m²
Design Team: YE Qing, SHI Bingjie, YANG Ling, TAN Qingjun, LU Di, Daijiro Nakayama, LIN Bihong, CHEN Xiuyuan, ZHOU Tingting, ZOU Xiaowei, LIU Xunfeng, LI Lingna
Local Design Institute: Shanghai Yuangou Architects and Consultants
Structural and MEP Consultant: CABR Technology Co., Ltd.
Curtain Wall Consultant: CABR Technology Co., Ltd.
Theater/Acoustic Consultant: Shanghai Net Culture Development Co., Ltd.
Lighting Consultant: Shanghai Modern Architecture Decoration Environmental Design Research Institute Co., Ltd.

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