OPEN Architecture’s Pinghe Bibliotheater in Shanghai is a library-theater hybrid evoking the ocean

Cetacean Surprise

OPEN Architecture’s Pinghe Bibliotheater in Shanghai is a library-theater hybrid evoking the ocean

OPEN Architecture has shared new images of its Pinghe Bibliotheater, a distinctly thalassic library and theater recently completed on the Shanghai campus of Qingpu Pinghe International School that, depending on how you look at it, resembles the bow of a half-submerged ocean liner or a surfacing blue whale with the characteristic paint job to match.

With its core programs—a library, cafe, 500-seat proscenium theater, and smaller 150-seat black box theater—“interlocking together like a Chinese puzzle,” OPEN’s hulking leviathan features “free-flowing spaces not only cultivate the students’ interests in reading and performing, but also encourage their imagination to roam freely in the ocean of knowledge,” according to the award-winning firm founded in New York City and headquartered in Beijing.

Aside from its evocative form and color, details such as porthole windows help to bring a strong maritime mood to the canal-side “school-as-village” compound, which is spread across roughly 12 acres of land and features just over a dozen OPEN-designed buildings including an arts center, dormitory, gymnasium/cafeteria, and a cluster of seven bamboo-clad “learning cubes” each dedicated to classroom spaces for different grade levels. The campus is home to over 2,000 students ranging from pre-kindergartners to high schoolers.

Exterior of a slanted library with bulging skylight
(Jonathan Leijonhufvud/Courtesy OPEN Architecture)

“When we were given the extensive and jumbled-together program of a new school for 2,000 students aged from three to 18 years, the immediate reaction was how dreadful it would be for a kid spending these many years fixed in one building,” explained OPEN in a press statement.

“We decided to break away from the current trend of school-as-megastructure. Instead, the original program was deconstructed and grouped into many smaller and distinctive buildings, forming a village-like campus. The marriage of library and theater came from the architect’s belief that the act of extensive reading and thinking, and the act of expression through performances, should be critical components of education but are often ignored in test-driven educational systems. The distinctive qualities of these two programs and the respective physical needs came to inspire the design of the building.”

Because they don’t require natural light, the theaters are positioned with the bottom and central part of the nearly 58,000-square-foot building while the skylight-dotted library, complete with terraced reading spaces, a sunken roof garden for al fresco studying, and radial bookshelves extending from a central reading area lit by a massive oculus, occupy the upper part of the structure. Warm wood paneling found throughout the library provides a contrast to the moody dark blue of the building’s exterior.

Interior of a library with a massive round skylight
The open-stack central reading area (Hao Chen/Courtesy OPEN Architecture)

Strategically situated on the edge of the campus near a secondary entrance, OPEN principals Li Hu and Huang Wenjing envisioned Pinghe Bibliotheater as a facility that doubles as a cultural center accessible to the larger community surrounding the school-village in western Shanghai’s Qingpu district. Per the firm, the so-called “blue whale” isn’t just a book repository and event venue but “a social energizer that brings together parents and community members.”

The bulk of the Qingpu Pinghe International School campus opened in 2019 with the Bibliotheater and standalone kindergarten building debuting this past September according to a recent project profile on the completed campus published by Architectural Record.