Chengdu's Lavish New Bookstore Is a Temple to the Printed Book

Bookstores rarely look so extravagant. Does it make sense today?

Interior of the Dujiangyan Zongshuge in Chengdu, China.

SFAP via V2com

We love books. Treehugger senior editor Katherine Martinko is not alone when she writes: "I just love paper books, the smell, the weight, the paper, the covers, the appendices, the publishing notes. People reading e-books don't notice these things as much, as I've discovered at my book club meetings; those of us who interact with a physical book have a different experience."

We also love real brick-and-mortar bookstores. Being a newly-published author, I am thankful for every one of the independents that have stocked my book and invited me to speak about it. Most are modest little businesses.

Interior of the Dujiangyan Zongshuge in Chengdu, China.


Not so in China, where the Zhongshuge chain opens bookshops that are vast and elaborate. They are all designed by X+Living and are monuments to books. The latest, the Dujiangyan Zongshuge in Chengdu, seems to go on and up forever—although it is all done with mirrors and fake books on film. That doesn't bother the designer, which treats it all like a stage set.

A press release notes:

"As you go up the stairs, bookshelves to the side offer a variety of books within reach. Other inaccessible areas are decorated with book pattern film, continuing to build the majestic momentum of the space. By creating end scenery and using architectural techniques, the designer moves the magnificent spirit of mountains and rivers into the indoor space, presenting readers with a powerful artistic landscape that captures the awe-inspiring beauty of nature."
An upward look at the new bookstore in Chengdu, China.


Treating bookstores as cafés have been a thing since they started fighting back against Amazon. We resisted this at Toronto's Ballenford Books on Architecture, a store that I was part-owner of for a while. Its shelving system, built out of cheap steel studs, was probably the cleverest thing I ever designed. We didn't want to mix expensive architectural books with greasy and wet fingers. We also kind of hoped people would buy a book and leave; it was a small shop.

Not the case at the Dujiangyan Zongshuge. The press release recommends:

 "Grab your favorite book, come to the comfortable cafe, and enjoy a cup of coffee in the quiet embrace of the mellow, art-inspired ambiance. Whether you stay for an afternoon, or drop by for a quick visit, you will appreciate the unique spiritual core of Zhongshuge, providing readers with a very ornamental space that creates value and is conducive to ideological inspiration."
interior of bookstore


Another issue raised by this project is that of sufficiency, where we "design the minimum to do the job, what we actually need, what is enough." A sort of Miesian "less is more." American hotel architect Morris Lapidus turned this on its head and wrote, "If you like ice cream, why stop at one scoop? Have two, have three. Too much is never enough."

Lapidus designed that famous stairway to nowhere at the Fontainebleu Hotel in Miami and this bookstore is truly Lapidusian.

"Here, we see a city. We listen to the dialogue between culture and wisdom, interpret the cultural thoughts condensed in a historical context, experience ancient feelings with a poetic flavor, and picture the dream in our minds. Whether it be the tile technology used to depict ancient wisdom in the reading area, or the bamboo sea display in the children’s reading area that captures a sense of happiness and innocence, or the portrayal of natural scenery in the literary area, the design elements aim to create an ideal destination for the soul, marked by the harmonious coexistence of livability and natural ecology."
book counter


Which brings us to the questions that have to be answered in every post: Why is this on Treehugger? What does it have to do with sustainability? The first thing that struck me as a writer about sustainable design is that it is too much: It is hopelessly excessive. Any bookstore that has fake books on shelves because they are inaccessible has too many shelves and wasted materials that are not fit for purpose, which is supposed to be holding books.

The next thing that struck me as a former bookstore owner is that it will never work: It is too expensive. Note how most of the books have the cover facing out—that used to be the sign of a failing bookstore that couldn't afford enough stock to fill the shelves. But this bookstore's economics must be different. The company has built a few of these and they are all wild and extreme—and they keep opening more.

But they are truly temples to the printed book. We could use a few more of those.