Harbin, China – As they say in Texas: everything’s bigger in China. While bookstores tend to be increasingly smaller affairs in Europe and in the post-Barnes-and-Noble world in the United States, its Chinese counterparts have grown into behemoths that sell much more than books: as our 2018 Designer of the Year and 2019 Frame Awards jury member Li Xiang explained, a bookstore in the country’s large cities is also a purveyor of photogenic spaces and gastronomic experiences, as well as a channel for social encounters.
That’s why the M.I. Bookstore, a Harbin-based proposal from HMA Architects & Designers is so mould-breaking: while expectedly gargantuan – it’s a 2,000-sq-m setup – it also provides private lounging spaces for shoppers who want to sample the pages of a potential new favourite. Surrounded by plants for added isolation and aural comfort, they’re as biophilic as they are bibliophilic.
The design team, led by architect Saunaam Yip, was inspired by the mountains of the Greater Khingan range that shape the Heilongjiang province, where Harbin is located. ‘The land is fertile, sunshine is opulent and water is abundant,’ explained Yip. ‘So we adopted natural and simple materials to make people feel warm, but also added wood grain and a steel structure, which are fantastic and powerful.’
The inspiration also informed the shape of the reading platforms: they were conceived as small nests inside a tree, where visitors can be sheltered from the buzz outside, with no distractions in their line of sight. Ironically, worms might find that nests are the worse place to be, but for bookworms, these structures provide a much needed spot for focus inside the high-traffic environments that Chinese bookstores have ultimately become.