Hong Kong interior design

Public library in eastern China boasts spectacular sea views

A residential project in eastern China boasts a library overlooking the sea, for locals in the Aranya community and the children of fishermen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 November, 2015, 11:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 November, 2015, 11:38pm

White sand caresses the door; a blue sea sparkles beyond. Sliding doors fling back to let the salt air in; each space interacting with the ocean. What sounds like an idyllic resort is in fact a public library, commissioned on a beach in Nandaihe, eastern China, as part of the Aranya residential development.

According to the developer, Tianxingjiuzhou Real Estate Development, the aptly named Seashore Library is a fusion of altruism and culture - the aim being to provide a non-profit, quiet reading place for people who live in the Aranya community, and the children of fishermen in nearby villages. Beijing-based Vector Architects was assigned the task.

From the moment he laid eyes on the site, principal architect Gong Dong imagined the building as a weathered rock, resting on the seashore. It would be an organic form fashioned from a concrete outer shell, and utilising glass to capture ambient light from various angles, changing as it does from morning to night, and season to season.

Inside lies a series of sections: a reading area, meditation space, activity room, refreshment bar, and rest area. Gong Dong says they "established a distinctive relationship between the space and the ocean, defining how light and wind enters into each room".

To give the ocean centre stage, seating platforms are raised at the back "so that everyone has an unblocked view". To avoid interruption by any structural component, all roof loads are carried by steel trusses running above the view windows. Hand-crafted glass bricks within the masonry soften the steel's hardness, and add another dimension to the varying play of light. Laminated bamboo, a durable and sustainable material used on floors and dividing walls, further softens the industrial elements.

The library, completed in April 2015 after a 10-month construction, sits what appears to be alarmingly close to water's edge. It is, in fact, around 75 metres from the sea at low tide, and just 45 metres at high tide, which the architect says is possible only at this location because tide variances are not great in the sheltered waters of Bohai Bay. More of a concern was to make the structure earthquake-proof. This was achieved through the use of strip foundations, which sit 3 metres below the sand yet are part of the superstructure, enabling the whole to effectively "float" as one piece.

Getting the foundations right was not difficult, "just different" from the norm for construction in China, Gong Dong said. Other challenges, though, "came one after the other".

The first was pouring the concrete shell on site, involving a technique the construction team had never before attempted ("we did three mock-up walls as experiments first," Gong Dong said), and once that was perfected, the challenge was to get the finish right. The architects wanted the outer shell to have a wood-grain appearance - to soften the look of the industrial material, concrete - but the mix of cement and water had to be precise in order to hold the pattern. To their credit, Gong Dong said, the developers made allowances for these construction sensitivities.

In total, the library provides 450 sq m of community space split into two levels. It was officially opened in May, and in late September, the library was named a Design Mark recipient of Taiwan's Golden Pin Design Award, an international competition recognising innovative products and projects that cater to the expectations, desires and needs of Chinese-speakers.

Gong Dong says the response to the project has been "a little beyond my expectation". Overseas media have picked it up, but what seems to please him most is the conversation Seashore Library has generated locally. "A lot of people talk about it" - not always favourably, but nonetheless it is a discussion that the architect welcomes.

"In China, we don't have enough channels for people to really understand what architecture is about," Gong Dong explained. "Normally, new construction is fast, and low quality - this project has sparked a social discussion about architecture, which is a good thing for everyone."

He also sees it as a timely response to the digital era. Put a digital device in a child's hand and he'd happily stay inside, isolated, all day. By providing such a special reading experience, the library becomes a precious bridge reconnecting human beings with the natural world, Gong Dong says.

As technology increasingly encroaches into our lives, communities need help to build a healthy consciousness to what is real. "I think that the architecture of this space can do the job," he said.