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Wutopia Lab, Shanghai, Church

Church of Reading: Bookshop in Shanghai

Yu Ting, founder of the Wutopia Lab architecture studio, somewhat immodestly says “I believe this bookshop should be a sanctum in the city of Shanghai” of his renovation project in the former Russian Orthodox church of St. Nicholas, located in the Chinese metropolis. But this place really does have a magical air, and Yu has succeeded in freeing this character from the deposits of later time strata.

The church was consecrated in 1937, after which it operated only for twelve years before being subjected to various uses as office space, a workshop, storage building, canteen, apartment house and restaurant. Yu reports that when he first entered the building, it seemed like a dilapidated labyrinth. The local historical protection authorities required that he tear out a concrete false ceiling − a later addition − and restore the central domed hall to its full height. For the most part, the shop infrastructure consists of a circular sales counter in the middle and a sort of inner dome of 5-mm thick, coated steel sheeting, perforated in places, whose lower portion serves as a shelving unit for books. After the huge bookcases had undergone testing in the workshop, the sheets were welded together inside the church. Altogether, 30 workers were occupied for 80 days with creating the shelving system.

Because the shelves have no backing, the contours of the church space remain visible through them, including the pseudoreligious mural that one of the building’s previous owners had had art students paint for his restaurant in the 2000s. Visitors have the best impression of the room-within-a-room construction from the gold-lined gallery above the entrance. Two rooms, one to each side of the apse, function as smaller reading rooms. The architects had the single-storey addition to the rear of the church shortened; this area now accommodates a café. Here, the cool silver colour of the shop fittings gives way to warm brown. However, the ribbed structure of metal that graces the walls is the same.

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