Reading Between the Lines

‘Pinghe Bibliotheater’ is the core of OPEN Architecture’s latest project. A library, theatre and a black box interlock together like a Chinese puzzle to form this characteristic building that some call ‘the blue whale’, while others see it as an ocean liner. The unique form of the building and the free-flowing spaces not only cultivate students’ interests in reading and performing, but also encourage their imagination to roam freely in the ocean of knowledge.


The Bibliotheater abuts an important corner of this village-like school, at a junction where a major city highway and an ancient canal also meet. The slanted roof with spiky skylights, ship porthole-like round windows, and eye-catching blue colour leave a strong impression on passers-by. When OPEN Architecture was given the extensive programme of a new school for 2000 students aged between three and 18, the firm’s immediate thought was how dreadful it would be for a child to spend so many years fixed in one building. The practice decided to break away from the current trend of schools as megastructures. Instead, the original programme was deconstructed and grouped into smaller and distinctive buildings, forming a village-like campus. The marriage of a library and theatre came from the architect firm’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 programmes and the respective physical needs came to inspire the design of the building.

Above and below

The proscenium theatre and the black box, which require the least natural light and the most acoustic isolation, occupy the lower part and the deep central area of the building, while the library occupies the upper part. A loop of different reading spaces rises and drops according to the varying heights of the theatre volumes below. This creates a terraced spatial sequence that climaxes at a central reading area that is surrounded by books and light.

Introvert and extrovert

The experience of reading is inevitably introverted and highly personal. Facing readers from early years to young adults, OPEN Architecture created many comfortable reading zones of different qualities. A sunken roof garden gives children a breath of fresh air and an outdoor reading area when weather permits.

The experience of performing in theatres, on the other hand, is extroverted and exciting. The main entrance to the theatre is where the building is ‘cut’ diagonally to form a theatrical opening. The juxtaposition of warm wood panels and deep blue walls create a visually stimulating auditorium. The cafe on the ground floor also plays an important role. During normal school days, parents waiting to pick up their children can read and socialise in this space.

Lightness and darkness

Light is crucial to the design of the library, not only fulfilling the functional needs but also giving form to the spaces and animating them with musical rhythm. Abundant skylights on the slanted roof bring filtered light to the central reading area, a giant oculus dropping down from the ceiling illuminates the very centre in an almost spiritual way, forming an emotionally charged central space. While in the theatre, natural light is avoided entirely, and artificial lighting was carefully designed to meet functional requirements.

In a sense, the Bibilotheater was conceived more broadly as a cultural centre for not only the school but also the surrounding communities. Carefully placed near the secondary entrance of the campus, the building may be used independently without disturbing the campus management. It is OPEN Architecture’s hope that the Bibliotheater will become the social energiser that brings together parents and community members.

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