by Almas SadiqueSep 06, 2023
What we essentially see in the Zolaism Café, designed by Beijing-based B.L.U.E Architecture Studio and located in China’s Aranya township, is an architectural problem that finds its footing in the realms of all three: retail, interior, and hospitality design. A solution is to be cautiously expected from an intersection of the three, but instead emerges in an element of landscape design, skillfully employed here as a conduit for spatial and structural design. In a seemingly effortless coming together of these, an otherwise simple glass and steel pavilion under 170 sq.m. in area is transformed into an alluring space with a thoughtful, memorable architectural quality. In fact, memory, or a spatial imprinting is what drives the essence of this small building: a store for a Chinese-style dessert brand, Zolaism.
Located in the vastly popular seaside tourist destination Aranya in Qinhuangdao, a three to four hours drive from Beijing city, the store finds itself at a tactical advantage with respect to its site, that begets the level of innovation a small scale retail outlet can display. A wide field of view is afforded to both the structure and the site by virtue of being placed along the northern side of the Aranya Cinema, in the middle of a popular urban plaza. In contrast to the decidedly European-Chinese (and a number of other spottable influences) hybrid structure of the theatre, the rectangular pavilion housing the café not only stands out as a kind of modernist annexure, but also serves to be the face of the complex with its innovative design scheme, particularly highlighted during the night when illuminated in warm streams of light.
Using natural elements in especially intimate internal spaces has a uniquely evocative yet calming effect. While a recent residence design in Fukushima, Japan - the Soil House by ADX - utilised surplus soil from site to form structural mounds within the house to bear an essential aspect of memory associated with it, the Zolaism Café exploits its rocky intervention toward a dual objective. Along with mirroring the brand’s identity deriving from the natural beauty of mountains and seas, the building intends to form an oasis, a nature-inspired haven for people to stop by and commune. "Here, we hope the architecture can be a spiritual place for people to settle down," states an official release.
As much as the building's rocky supports prove to be a visual appeal, it is their formation and the iterative process behind them that is the real feat here. The spatial planning of the structure has been described as "an open plaza and several rocks with natural form are scattered in between, supporting a large eave". While one face of the cuboidal structure is completely abutted against the theatre, the remaining three comprise a glass curtain wall envelope, so as to let passersby soak in the café’s very visual experience in entirety. The tactile part of the experience, obviously, remains reserved for patrons visiting the café.
The differently sized stones conceal the steel frame structure of the café, along with dividing functional areas while also maintaining a certain fluidity and openness. The scale of the rocks is variable to the degree that the two largest ones ensconce private resting rooms, and each of the rocks has a seating space 'carved' at the base. The rest of the café’s more formal seating is spread freely throughout the spaces between these rocks, encasing a continuously morphing spatial experience. Structurally, the natural-looking stones were created by GRC pouring, and the coarse and weighty texture of the rocks is lent by the concrete solidifying. A poetically inclined connection between the clarity of the glass surrounding the structure and the solidity and opacity of the ‘rock’ supporting it is also noticed, while creating an equally poetic play of sunlight and the resultant shadows in the interior spaces.
Furthermore, the construction team at B.L.U.E Architecture Studio stated the process to be spontaneous and full of uncertainty, especially given the organic form of the rocks, and the elimination of any 3D software in designing or formulating the final form of the rocks. Beginning with scaled models using foam corroded by glue to mimic the rocks, the team began formulating the rocks and the space at a 1:100 scale. As the design progressed further, the models were scaled up to a 30th of the original, followed by a 1:10 crafting exercise in clay. The to-scale fabrication of the ‘rocks’ turned out to be akin to a sculpting process, increasingly involving the hand and an in-situ crafting process that led to assemblage on site.
“The design for Zolaism reveals both the relativity and the integration of human and nature. The architectural space has become a spiritual habitat. As a new beginning, this experimental attempt stands as our exploration of the relationship between nature and artificial environments in a new era,” states the design team on the essence of the special project.
Name: Zolaism Café, Aranya
Location: Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, China
Project Type: Café, Architecture / Interior Design
Architect: B.L.U.E. Architecture Studio
Project Team: Shuhei Aoyama, Yoko Fujii, Lingzi Liu, Jiaxi Li, Ziwei Zhou
Lighting Design: B.L.U.E. Architecture Studio
Size: Single Floor
Site Area: 240m²
Gross Area: 170m² (interior) / 47m² (exterior)