Wutopia Lab's Sinan Books Poetry Store in Shanghai is a ‘church in a church’

The Chinese architectural firm converts a former, abandoned church into an abode for poetry, housing 1000 books in various languages in its metallic, revamped interiors.

by Jincy Iype Published on : Mar 05, 2020

China-based architectural firm Wutopia Lab recently revamped the entire historic site of the St. Nicholas Church in Shanghai into a bookstore. A former orthodox church built in 1932, the white structure has now been transformed into a stunning sanctuary for poetry and its lovers, called the Sinan Books Poetry Store. It will house 1000 poetry books in various languages and is designed to be the largest professional poetry salon in Shanghai.

Wutopia Lab incorporated 45 tons of steel into the derelict heritage building, bringing forth a dramatic, rhythmic interior design. “A continuation of Wutopia Lab’s design style, magical realism based on antithesis, perforated steel plates, translucent, uncertain light, colour and dramatic poetry can be found in the poetry store,” shares the architecture firm.

  • The Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab features an enormous metallic framework | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    The Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab features an enormous metallic framework Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images
  • An enormous framework of steel was inserted within the former church | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    An enormous framework of steel was inserted within the former church Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images

The church at Gaolan Road #16 has not been used as a place of worship for the longest time; in the last few decades it took up roles of an office, a factory, warehouse, residence and a canteen before being used as a club, restaurant and then being abandoned completely. “The first time when I stood at the site, it seemed like a maze of ruins. But after getting accustomed to the darkness, I could identify the historic traces of construction that have been there since its beginning. We have tried to integrate these existing decorations along with modern additions, as one complete entity,” shares Yu Ting, chief designer at Wutopia Lab.

  • The present site of the Sinan Books Poetry Store in Shanghai | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    The present site of the Sinan Books Poetry Store in Shanghai Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images
  • The derelict condition of the orthodox church | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    The derelict condition of the orthodox church Image Credit: Courtesy of Wutopia Lab

The project had to be implemented with permission from the Shanghai Historic Building Protection Affairs Center, owing to its heritage status. This meant that no alterations could be made to the existing façade of the church, its structural system, basic floor plan, distinct interior ornamentation and its dome. The spaces in the building were cleaned thoroughly to house the new design programme, while the ceiling height of the main hall was retained. An enormous framework of steel bookshelves was inserted within the church, methodically forming the 388 sqm bookstore with a height of 9.9 m, leaving a gap of 50 cm from the old walls of the church. The new steel bookshelves trace the shape of the original materials such as the pillars, floral decorations, the existing walls and the flooring.  

  • Wutopia Lab inserted a stunning steel framework inside, forming the bookstore’s sanctuary | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    Wutopia Lab inserted a stunning steel framework inside, forming the bookstore’s sanctuary Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images
  • The inserted steel framework leaves a gap of 50 cm from the old walls of the church | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    The inserted steel framework leaves a gap of 50 cm from the old walls of the churchImage Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images
  • Heritage features of the church such as its distinct interior ornamentation were retained  | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    Heritage features of the church such as its distinct interior ornamentation were retained Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images

“I believe that the poetry bookstore should be the sacred space of the city of Shanghai. It should have an independent spirituality, not based on the religion of the old site. Given the fact that the dome could not be transformed, I used the metallic bookshelf to create a new structure as a church in the old church. This Church in a Church is a haven for modern people, which was once a sanctuary of faith,” elaborates Yu Ting.

“Poetry is connate with the origin of man.” – P. B. Shelley

Apart from the existing stone, plated steel plates have been incorporated into the new design, merging the old and new astutely. The steel bookstore and the church’s stone masonry thus unite as one. The partition and the bookshelf’s stand are welded together, taking the form of a steel plate gridded system that forms the new inner sanctuary of the poetry chapel. The bookshelf does not have a back panel, while the dome throws natural light that pools into the book dwelling. Faint traces of the old frescoes on the wall are revealed through the gaps in the bookshelf, adding on to the poetic ambience.

  • Faint traces of the old frescoes on the wall are revealed through the gridded steel framework | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    Faint traces of the old frescoes on the wall are revealed through the gridded steel framework Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images
  • The bookstore’s dome lets in natural light into the main hall | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    The bookstore’s dome lets in natural light into the main hall Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images

The building was renovated over the course of 80 days, by 30 workers. They cut “5mm steel plates into 128 standpipes, 640 large steel plates and 2921 small steel plates for 23 layers of crossbars.” Pre-assembled off site, the framework was moved inside and then welded together.

The east and west parts of the church have been given a new role of a cosy café, which provides a contrast to the metallic bookstore with its chocolate coloured material palette. Additionally, the faded colour of the structure’s windows has been replaced with a blue film by Wutopia Lab. This rendered the interiors with an infinite, transparent blue, which is accentuated when sunlight spills into the main hall.

  • Windows are replaced with blue film, rendering the interior stairwell with an infinite, transparent blue | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    Windows are replaced with blue film, rendering the interior stairwell with an infinite, transparent blue Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images
  • The east and west parts of the church have been transformed to a cosy café  | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
    The east and west parts of the church have been transformed to a cosy café Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images

The balcony has been converted to a shiny, golden pulpit in a poetic interweaving of the old and new, where the poet can recite aloud in a noble space. Commenting on the end result, Yu Ting says, “I walked up the spiral staircase shrouded in blue light. The Sinan Books Poetry Store I designed is a gift ‘for the infinite few’. It is the soul of Shanghai.”

The transformation process – Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab | STIRworld
The transformation process – Sinan Books Poetry Store by Wutopia Lab Image Credit: Courtesy of CreatAR Images

Project Details

Name: Sinan Books (Poetry Store)
Location: Shanghai, China
Gross Built Area: 388 sqm
Client: Shanghai Century Cloud Culture Development Co., Ltd
Architect: Wutopia Lab
Chief architect: YU Ting
Project architects: Shengrui PU, Mingshuai LI
Design team: Qinghe KANG, Xueqin JIANG, Jun CHEN, Jiqing MA, Dali PAN
Design consultant: S5 Design Co., Ltd
Restoration design: Shanghai Construction Decoration (Group) Design Co., Ltd.
Structural Consultant: Junfeng YU
Light consultant: Chloe ZHANG
Constructors: Shanghai Interior Decoration Engineering Co., Ltd., BXC Design Construction

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