Tweaking Tradition

A bookstore installation in Shanghai playfully updates old-school Chinese building methods.

An alumnus of the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, architect Chen Xudong helped design China’s spectacular Beijing National Stadium for next year’s Summer Olympics. But as principal of the Shanghai firm DAtrans, the 35-year-old is also among a generation of young Chinese designers who are shaping an emerging homegrown architecture that demonstrates a native sensibility without resorting to cliché. Consider Chen’s strikingly humble scheme for the new Time­zone 8 bookstore in Shanghai.

Built on a tight budget, the 2,153-square-foot store occupies a former workshop in 50 Moganshan Road, the converted factory complex that has become Shanghai’s hotbed of contemporary art. To organize the space, Chen came up with a solution that’s at once straightforward and complex: three cylindrical display partitions comprising perhaps 20,000 cross sections of PVC pipes. Given that the architect eschews superficial references—“I don’t believe in putting pagoda tops on modern buildings,” he says—it would be a mistake to compare their honeycomb structure to traditional Chinese latticework screens (tempting as it may be). Instead, Chen sees his silolike forms as firmly rooted in Modernism—though the pipes, which are of two ­different diameters, have been arranged in random patterns by the workmen who assembled them. “We just designed the parameters,” he says. “The workers could explore the flexibility within those par­ameters, which is a traditional Chinese way of construction.”

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Chen had channeled Chinese architecture’s historic underpinnings, a menu of forms and typologies that had long been standardized yet was open to subsequent interpretation (without the impositions of architects, who didn’t exist in the Western sense until the twentieth century). This flexibility within a prescribed system lies at the heart of Chen’s partitions, each of which has a different diameter, while their placement and openwork surfaces blur one’s sense of being either outside or within them—much like the traditional Chinese courtyard typology. In other words, “it’s about borrowing traditional ideas—not traditional buildings,” says Chen, who adds that for him the influence is more intuitive than conscious.

The rest of the space was left mostly raw, but Chen did allow for another notable flourish: a sequence of painted overscale bar codes by the hip Shanghai graphic designer JiJi that demarcate the bookstore by subject area. “They’re an ironic statement about the over­design of the commercial environment,” Chen says. “I prefer a sense of improvisation, which maybe reflects China’s current condition.”

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