Designs On Asia: Sinan Books Poetry Store, A Shrine To Poetry In An Abandoned Church In Shanghai

The modernist poet Wallace Stevens once said that ‘the poet is the priest of the invisible’, and one church-turned-poetry bookstore in Shanghai is testament to that. Once a Russian Orthodox church built in 1932, St. Nicholas has lived many lives as an office, a washing-machine factory, a club, and a French restaurant – before being abandoned. Most recently, it’s been reincarnated as a spectacular shrine to verse, in the form of Sinan Books Poetry Store – Shanghai’s largest dedicated poetry salon.

Set among the European-style heritage buildings of Gaolan Road, Sinan Books Poetry Store preserves much of the church’s historic architecture. Working within guidelines by the Shanghai Historic Building Protection Affairs Center, the team from local architecture studio Wutopia Lab peeled away layers of newer paint to reveal textures from the original church – rustic brickwork, archways finely carved with floral motifs. “This is a church in a church,” explains chief architect Yu Ting. “It’s a sanctuary for modern people, born in what was once a sanctuary of faith.”

There’s no missing this poetic sanctum even from afar, with its quintessentially Russian onion-shaped domes floating on the horizon. A series of carved arches lead the way into the main hall, where you’ll find your eyes drawn irresistibly upward to the domed ceiling – soaring to nearly ten metres high. Squint and you’ll see a fresco of winged cherubs painted at its very pinnacle, fluttering in golden circles. Framing it is a circular chandelier that hangs from the centre of the dome, massive and minimalist as a ring of steel.

This mingling of antique and modern plays out in the bookshelves blanketing the space as well. To hold the bookstore’s nearly two-thousand-strong collection of poetry titles in multiple languages, the architects welded thousands of steel plates to form a towering, beehive-like structure.

Set at a 50cm gap from the masonry, this bookcase is shaped to the curves and arches of the interior walls – almost like a glimmering, sky-high skeleton. With no back panels, the shelves allow colourful Catholic-style frescoes to peek through, along with floods of natural light. It’s a space to stir the soul.

Extending from the main hall, the east and west parts of the church have been converted into a cosy café. Here, low ceilings, dim lighting, and a warm palette of chocolate brown work together to create a respite from the sleek silver of the bookstore. Set in the stone walls outside the main hall are arched windows, once stained with colour and now simply lined with blue film. As sunlight spills into the side halls, an infinitely soft blue glow shadows the air, highlighting the brightness of the main hall.

If you’re sharp-eyed – or curious – you might spot a spiral staircase tucked to the side of the main hall. Climb the stairway shrouded in blue light and you’ll reach a balcony, transformed into a golden pulpit overlooking the bookstore. From high above, you can admire up close how the modern steel of the bookcase and the ancient stone of the church harmonize without touching. On the day this building was completed, chief architect Yu Ting shares, he stood before the pulpit and whispered his own deep-rooted faith: “I love poetry, and I use it to create the world”.

Sinan Books Poetry Store is located at No. 16 Gaolan Road, Shanghai, China.

All photos courtesy of CreatAR Images

Lifestyle Writer

Jolene has a major sweet tooth and would happily eat pastries for all meals. When she’s not dreaming of cheesecake, she can be found in the dance studio, working on craft projects, or curled up with a good book.