Community libraries have played a vital role in society for centuries, acting as gateways to knowledge and culture that support learning and sharing ideas that spur innovation. These cultural centers also preserve an authentic record of knowledge accumulated by past generations that leave a legacy for future generations to access—necessitating a thoughtful design approach that balances the past and the present.
Shanghai, China, is now home to one of the largest libraries in the world—Shanghai Library East, which serves as a civic landmark and cultural destinations in the world’s third-most populous city.
Designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (SHL), the new library’s primary function as a center of art, culture and technology-driven learning reflects the modern library’s rapidly changing ethos. At the same time, its allusion to classical Chinese scholarship—the building’s form conjures the scholar’s rock of the ancient literati—anchors it in tradition.
“This important cultural center for the citizens of Shanghai embraces the idea of ‘collection to connection’—a space to bring people together. It’s the city’s gift to them,” said Chris Hardie, design director for SHL’s and Perkins&Will’s combined Shanghai studio.
A Scholar’s Rock in a Chinese Garden
Taihu stones, or scholars’ rocks, served as muses for the Jin dynasty intelligentsia—sources of creative inspiration and meditation. They were prized for their abstract qualities, perforated surfaces, eroded hollows and unique textures. In its architecture, interior design and programming, Shanghai Library East evokes a scholar’s rock in a Chinese garden: a polyhedral stone enveloped in an emerald tree canopy; a naturally occurring network of interconnected interior spaces; a wellspring of knowledge, inquiry and discovery.
“This library was a unique opportunity to reinterpret a cherished Chinese symbol through architecture and design,” said project architect Jing Lin. “In ancient times, scholars would gather around Taihu stones, deriving inspiration from their edges, curvatures, canyons and tunnels, which seemed to shift when viewed from different vantage points. Similarly, as visitors move about Shanghai Library East, their views of its interconnecting spaces shapeshift.”
The library’s exterior pays homage to printed literature through an even subtler symbolism. An abstract motif depicting 15 photographs of marble swirls “printed” onto the façade’s glass panels represents the library’s “cover.” Arranged in horizontal bands of varying transparency, these etched panels allow light to penetrate deep into the building, illuminating the space—and, like a good book, enlightening the mind.
A Place for the People of Shanghai
Although it houses multifarious books, Shanghai Library East will also host more than 1,200 lectures, seminars, performances, events and hands-on activities for upward of 4 million visitors annually. This panoply of programs will be facilitated by 1.2 million square feet of open, flexible and interconnected environments.
On the main level, a grand central atrium welcomes guests into a vast yet warm and inviting atmosphere of bamboo, oak and terrazzo. Overhead, the floors stack and interlock—an architectural strategy to visually connect each of the library’s seven levels. The lower floor serves as an agora, or central plaza, hosting various events, exhibitions, a bookstore and a café.
“Libraries have long formed the backbone of many communities, becoming an integral part of our lives. It’s why we refer to them as the ‘third space’—a highly personal place that exists between our home and our work,” Hardie said.
From the exterior, the library appears to “float” above two pavilions—one housing a 1,200-seat theater, exhibition, and events space; the other housing a children’s library with a central courtyard and outdoor play spaces. Atop the pavilions are outdoor landscaped reading rooms with roofs to protect visitors from rain. Visitors enjoy panoramic views of the iconic Shanghai skyline and Century Park, the city’s largest green space.
“The smart and hybrid Shanghai Library East is a new generation library. It is not only a place for storing and lending books, or a reading room, but also an open space for culture and art,” said Chen Chao, director of the Shanghai Library. “Exhibitions, lectures, music, art, experiencing technologies and even entering the library itself are seen as a kind of ‘reading.’”
Connecting Community with the Arts
“The public art vision for the Library, to create an unprecedented collection that befits an institution devoted to education, study, and the archive of texts, has been an essential guide in the realization process,” said UAP’s principal Dane Currey, who oversaw the curation and delivery of the art program for Shanghai Library East. “To have been able to guide the artists and accompany the commissioner and their architects in this journey of conceptualization, experimentation and realization has been an honor.”
A Legacy of Leadership in Library Design
The completion of Shanghai Library East marks two significant milestones for SHL. First, it caps a decade of success since the opening of the firm’s Shanghai studio in 2011, which has since expanded to 100 staff—the result of organic growth and a 2018 partnership with global architecture and design firm Perkins&Will. Second, it culminates several years of global leadership in library design, from the Royal Danish Library and Dokk1 in Denmark, to Halifax Central Library in Canada, to Christchurch Central Library in New Zealand, to State Library Victoria in Australia.
“Our creative approach to library design is founded on the idea of libraries as inclusive cultural institutions deeply embedded in their context,” said SHL partner and design principal Elif Tinaztepe. “Our clients and community members are true partners who help visions become reality. We ideate with citizens, businesses, governments, academics, historians, students and other interest groups. And we insist on open, honest dialogue to meet the challenges that can arise at all phases of the project, together.”
The Danish firm has a strong presence in North America with several completed projects, and through its partnership with Perkins&Will. SHL is currently leading the design of the Commonwealth Pier in Boston, and together with Perkins&Will the two firms are designing the new Gateway building for the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.