China’s technology boom of the past two decades incubated a number of e-commerce giants. Founded in 2008 and headquartered in the historic trade port of Guangzhou, vip.com’s pioneering of flash sales coupled with its wide product range have propelled it to the forefront of online Chinese retailers. Parent company Vipshop’s new 31-story headquarters by German architect GMP is on Pazhou, an island in Guangzhou that overlooks the Pearl River. The 18th floor includes a double-height wraparound atrium, which is where Vipshop executives wanted to locate a staff library and events space. To stock the shelves with some 42,000 books, magazines, and other periodicals, the company collaborated with Zhongshu Bookstore, which has a much-published all-white branch in Xi’an designed by Wutopia Lab. Vipshop executives liked the look of that project so much, they hired Wutopia founder and chief architect Ting Yu to envision the company’s 24,000-square-foot library.
Dubbed Satori Harbor in a nod to the clipper ships that plied wares between the city formerly known as Canton and the west, the library affords open, panoramic views of Guangzhou. Yu and his team began by deciding to differentiate the library from the rest of Vipshop’s more traditional office floors. They sought inspiration from the origins of the Chinese library as well as Guangzhou’s merchant past. “Nowadays, most people go to libraries to study for exams or consult materials,” Yu notes. “But, in ancient China, the library was a sacred place. The Buddhist concept of satori, or sudden enlightenment, originates with Zhuangzi, the 4th-century BC philosophy master who wrote the foundation texts of Taoism. It represents the owner’s pursuit of a realm above daily life, but not so high as to be unattainable.”
Entry to the library leads people through a tunnel off the elevator lobby. Dimly lit corridors and grottolike spaces with oculi became motifs for the rabbit-warren alleys of Guangzhou’s inner city. They contrast with the double-height spaces flooded with natural light. The lower floor contains the more public areas such as the theater, magazine section, reading rooms, lounge areas, coffee bar, and an event space known as the harbor. More intimate spaces such as the rare-book room, conference room, and an orange-carpeted children’s area, for when staffers bring their kids to work, are grouped on the upper floor in a U shape. Long expanses of reading benches are adjacent to the edge of the atrium and overlook the level below.
The event space is dominated by tall stacks of books that resemble the city’s ancient fortifications. In front of them, a stylized white clipper ship features a prow outfitted with steps that can double as seating. A floor-to-ceiling translucent red divider can be drawn to separate the space into two rooms and was designed to resemble the traditional red sails of ships along the Pearl River. “Vipshop’s leadership kept emphasizing that the company originated in Guangzhou’s 13 original hongs, or factories, that made up the foreign commercial district,” Yu explains. “At the time, Canton was the only port open to the outside world. Vipshop feels that it inherited the spirit of those hongs, as it brings goods from abroad into China.”
As Chinese cities and ports have historically been well delineated, Yu created a number of curves and arcs to resemble the dunes and riverbanks that separate the open views of the harbor from the enclosed city elements. Portholes and other circular openings facilitate views from confined rooms to expansive spaces beyond, and vice versa from spacious areas into private rooms. This show-and-tell aspect of the library becomes the trail of breadcrumbs guiding through its maze of corridors, with surprises around every bend. “When you open a square hole, it’s difficult to achieve visual consistency,” Yu notes, as he elaborates on the transformation of corridors into tunnels. “Finally the idea came to distill the shape of the tunnel into a way to open the hole.”
But, as to be expected, with COVID-19, the project’s execution was challenging. “We couldn’t conduct regular site visits due to the pandemic,” Yu admits. “Much was done remotely and some of the detailing suffered, like the curved openings not being smooth enough.” But Vipshop employees, who are back to work in the office after the spring shutdown, and visitors to the library would never know it.
Drawing on a palette of predominantly white stucco and terrazzo, Yu plays with contrasting volumes and shapes to give the library its Taoist identity. “Zhuangzi’s books explain that Taoism doesn’t require a special place to practice,” he says. “You can realize it in any place, at any time, from nature. I don’t want everyone to understand Taoist philosophy—but some may feel it and that’s good. Some may not feel it. It doesn’t matter. That, in itself, is a kind of Taoist philosophy.”
Project Team: Yuchen Guo; Siqi Yang; Beidi Zhan; Shengrui Pu: Wutopia Lab. Product Source: Vitra: Sculptures (Children’s Area).