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Bookstore in 798 Art Zone, Beijing. Conveying the memoir of its Jewish American heritage

«We do not want to use the architectural language and form thats has been already applied to works» – an architectural project by Hie Wei

798 Art Zone opened its doors to the public during the winter of 2019. Initially, during its idealization in the Nineties, it was supposed to become a contemporary art gallery, by first idea of the architect Liang Jingyu.  

After that, the architect He Wei, of Hei Wei Studios / 3andwich Design, transformed it into a bookstore. Hei Wei’s background lies in the Chinese countryside and its landscapes. He claims that «every project is a beginning. Artists do not want to repeat themselves; they want to change and impart an idea with a challenge. We do not want to use an architectural language and form that has been applied in prior works».

From East to West and back, Bookstore in 798 Art Zone brings European models to China.

The architect has always been familiar with renovating and remodeling historical sites: «Our project include a renovation from the former building to a developed structure. On one side, we aim at saving the building’s core, and on the other, we give it a purpose. The challenge is to balance sides, creating a co-existence». 

When approaching this project, Wei’s objective was indeed to find a balance. He chose to preserve the Twentieth Century Art Deco style of the two-floor concept store left behind by Liang Jingyu. This helps to convey the memoir of its owners, the Faerber family, and their Jewish American heritage. «Art Deco style is a symbol for the bookstore, as well as for the town and its history».

In fact, before being bought over, Bookstore in 798 was known as Paragon Bookstore, and belonged to the Faerber family. The bookstore was founded in 1942, after the Jewish family managed to flee Nazi control and find refuge in Shanghai. There, they started introducing European models to China. Later on, they moved to New York City. There, they diffused Chinese art culture *for American consumption.

After travelling East and West, Paragon bookstore finally returned to Beijing in 2014, when it was bought over in 2019, and called Bookstore in 798 Art Zone. He Wei, his team and the new-found owner represent this maintenance in the structure, keeping the books on focus.

Western and Eastern aesthetic

«We care about using sustainable practices, and we often use construction technology from the past».

Remnants from the site include the south facade of the building, which is lined with French style windows. As a design element, the windows act as a reminder of history. Simultaneously, they act as a marketing tactic. «The French windows help us showing what is happening in the bookstore, as passersby can see the books displayed inside».

Among the maintained design features there is also the floorplan of the building. It has a particular U-shape. This was a problem which the architect and his team had to solve. «We had to find a way to connect two parts. The space has a second floor that was left from the former owner. Therefore, we had to find the correct elevation to connect the sides of the second floor of the south corridor». When asked about their practices, the team states: «We usually take on projects in rural areas, where we use wood and stone. We care about using sustainable practices, and we often use construction technology from the past».

To create continuity between the two floors of the store, the architects focused on two areas: «Between the first and the second floor, the space forms a ring. People can look inside from one side and see the books from the second floor as well as the passage to the right side. From another perspective, the site looks down onto the space of the first floor and ends in the cafe area. The Art Deco colors and patterns, separate the outside from the inside».

798 Art Zone bookstore, First floor

A place for books, to visit and to explore, not just to photograph

A trait that does not belong to He Wei’s designs is color, featured through the furniture, flooring, and walls of the bookstore. «Art Deco has yellow, green and blue», while the bookstore uses orange for the floors of the stairway.  

Keeping the books at the forefront of their design, He Wei shares: «We stayed away from becoming an ‘online celebrity bookstore’ – a trend in China, where bookstores or libraries are transformed for visitors to take pictures. We discussed with the owner and our team that we did not want to make a space for the sole purpose of photography. Over eighty percent of the space is designed for the books. The owner asked us to make up space for 200,000 books».

Bookstore in 798 Art Zone, a new vision from a previous building

The bookstore encompasses five zones: the library, the café, the multi-functional meeting area, and a small exhibition space. «For the book area, we used dark wood shelving with a black column and dark wood floors. We did this for people to focus on the books instead of just looking at the architecture. In the café, we created a blue bar with Art Deco patterned floors.

«The meeting room is not open every day, it is for workshops or meetings, so the café at the entrance takes on the purpose of leisure and writing space. All around the walls, photos of the bookstore from the past surround the visitors. Our aim was to give the building a face and style», says He Wei. «Every architect wants to add something to the design and function of building from the start», despite starting from a previous vision.

Bookstore in 798 Art Zone aimes at providing Western Art books to Chinese people. Alongside the library space, the store acts as an event space for workshops, seminars and activities related to arts and literature, in conjunction with the Central Academy of Fine Arts. It also provides leisure zones and meeting rooms.

Bookstore in 798 Art Zone

798 Art District
Beijing, China

Anisha Khemlani

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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