The Seashore Library is a subtle Modernist intervention from the next generation of Chinese architects
Beidaihe is a popular beach town in Hebei province in north-east China overlooking the Bohai Sea. Since Mao’s time, this resort has always been the Communist Party of China’s summer retreat, where deals, promotions and bollockings are meted out in equal measure. This year, it was cancelled as part of President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. As a result, the private beach area designated for diplomats was noticeably quiet.
Chinese beach culture looks remarkably like late 19th-century Britain’s, with parents and children standing around gaily; looking bemusedly at the sea and occasionally deigning to dip a toe in. This detachment has all the appearances of Victorian prudishness accompanied by the contemporary trend for long dresses, bloomers and straw boaters. In fact, the weird rise of beachwear like the ‘facekini’ (a balaclava-like mask) and bright yellow sunscreening anoraks complete with hoodies show that this behaviour has very little to do with modesty, but rather a fear of a tan. Adults walk about with parasols, fully clothed, wearing huge inflated rubber rings.
Ten miles further down the coastline, past the chemical works, beyond the Saintland Sea World Centre and the seemingly endless golf courses, is the lesser-known resort Nandaihe on the Changli Gold Coast. It is where Beijing-based Vector Architects’ latest modest building is located.
Vector, and its founder Gong Dong, is a new generation of architectural practices and practitioners in China that is trying not to be mega-scale. Its ambition is to produce human-centred, low-level and contextually driven architecture. It has developed a considerable portfolio of buildings that express a deft lightness of touch, from pavilion buildings in Kunshan to a series of eco-farms across the country. Its maturity is evident in the interplay of materials, form and daylight.
‘The setting appears idyllic…except that, at the time of my visit, a Chinese boy band was using the library as the backdrop for its new video’
The Seashore Library is a 450m2, two-storey public library on Nandaihe beach. Literally, on the beach. The setting appears idyllic: sun, sea, surf, sand, solitude … except that, at the time of my visit, a Chinese boy band was using the library as the backdrop for its new video.
Vector’s design approach is developed from an analysis of site, cultural conditions and climate, with the intention to challenge the existing conditions and provide ‘an unprecedented life experience created through design’. This, Gong says, ‘is the meaning of new architecture’. For a practice experimenting with context, this heavy concrete box matches only the concrete grey of the sea. It is ironically contextual of the lassitude of local Chinese beachgoers, maybe. Surrounded by a mix of shells, powdery white sand and tufts of beachgrass, it looks like something that Alain de Botton might have commissioned for a bourgeois dirty weekend in Dungeness.
Gong is part of the generation of returnee, foreign-educated, foreign-experienced, creative Chinese practitioners influencing the debate in China. He studied at Tsinghua, Illinois and Munich and worked for both Richard Meier and Steven Holl in New York. Rather than define himself as a Modernist, Gong says: ‘In the unique social environment of China, we are still continuously seeking the answer.’ His is a mission to challenge what he calls Chinese architecture’s ‘rather blundering’ approach.
The architects have taken account of predictive climate models and are confident that ‘sea level rise in Bohai Bay is fairly stable’, adding that ‘concrete was chosen because of its good corrosion resistance’ but also because the ‘materiality and formality of concrete endows the library with the character of hardness and steadiness that psychologically provides a secure haven to the visitors’.
Source: Xia Zhi
From the front, the building presents a coherent elevation of one long window wall on the ground floor and recessed windows on the upper floor. This is the east, sea-facing side of the building taking advantage of the views, the morning sun and the sea air. The rear of the building presents a more secluded facade, including a long bench facing inland. Here the building seems divided into two distinct volumes with a functional space in between - an entranceway - masked by a concrete wall.
On the ground floor, a large tiered reading room takes up most of the space, with a bar area and toilet, office etc to the north. On the second floor, the plan is confusingly complex due to the introduction of a simple diagonal wall that makes orientation difficult. The upper floors of the reading room are separated from an ‘activity room’ by a roof space and meditation space, triangular because of the angled separating wall. Visitors can also access the concave triangular roof of the meditation room for greater seclusion. Here it is like being within a ship’s prow, with the possibility of looking out over a sea of land.
Mentioning Gong’s New York mentors, the roof curve is a nod, maybe, to Holl’s Biarritz museum that was also intended to exemplify the curves and rolls of the sea and tide. There is a hint of Meier’s Saltzman House here also. Yet this is no Chinese copycat, but an innovative and subtle Modernist intervention. A typical Chinese architectural response might have been to revel in this site as a tabula rasa, but Vector has engaged with the ever-changing context of China.
Media reports and glossy photos of this building have created a misleading impression that it sits in glorious isolation. Indeed, alongside the library, Vector has just completed a delightful church on the beach: a pristine white spire of a building that will undoubtedly capture the booming wedding market in China. And that’s not all, to satisfy China’s emerging leisure classes, Club Med is completing a huge complex within 100 metres to the south. Large pre-tourism blocks are sprouting to the west. The only unchanging feature is the sea and so the architect has used the solidity of all other elevations to shut out China’s disruptive influence. As Gong says: ‘To avoid the interruption from the proposed developments alongside, and to achieve a certain tranquillity, the library is more enclosed and opaque at the west, north and south sides.’
Ironically, this library hit the headlines in Chinese social media as soon as it was completed this summer. It is a pleasant meditative space for around 80 readers at a time. But after bloggers posted pictures of what became known as ‘the most peaceful library in the world’, nearly 2,000 people visited one Saturday afternoon to experience the solitude.
Architect: Vector Architects
Principal architect: Gong Dong
Project architect: Chen Liang
Photographs: Su Shengliang, Hal Chen, Xia Zhi