In 2017, we were commissioned to create a pop-up ‘Social House’ for the 2018 Xintiandi Festival in Shanghai, China. The festival coincided with a major brand revamp to make the car-free retail district of Xintiandi more of a social space, prioritising interaction, engagement and experience. With its lively, narrow alleys and distinct Shikumen (stone gate)-style architecture, the area has long been home to bookshops, print houses and cafés, and we were keen to reflect these local elements in the look, feel and spirit of the Xintiandi Social Pop Up House.
We began by exploring the idea of the traditional hearth: a focal point and gathering place in the home to socialise, display objects of beauty or significance, and share our time, experiences and ideas with guests and loved ones. After studying hearths, fireplaces, chimneybreasts, mantelpieces and similar structures in both traditional Chinese and British domestic architecture, we designed five sculptural hearths as the central point of the Social House to display books, magazines and other printed materials in a way that blurred the realms of the public and private, interior and exterior.
To resonate with the local Shikumen architecture and echo the many historic and restored buildings in Xintiandi, we applied a stone-like rendered surface to the structure. We often use strong colours in our work to signify a different use of space, and the soft, welcoming blush-pink shade of the Xintiandi Social House gave it a strong visual identity on the retail landscape to signal an imaginative, social structure offering an alternative to shopping. We designed the sculptural forms and included seating to provide comfort and encourage visitors to sit, lean, read and spend time in the space, rather than simply purchasing an item and moving along. In fact, along with the displayed books, the pop-up also hosted a varied cultural events programme which included talks by respected writers, poets and critics on Chinese calligraphy, poetry, architecture and photography.
By combining the function of an outdoor library with the trope of the domestic hearth, the Xintiandi Social House became a sort of ‘social catalyst’, allowing visitors to explore how we can be social in a small, public space.