This Library Looks and Feels Like a Floating Concrete Cloud

Overlooking the idyllic Haikou Bay in China, an ethereal library by MAD Architects celebrates the liquid nature of concrete through sinuous, free-flowing forms and a total absence of right angles.

Photography by Archexist

Spatial Awareness is a new column that hones in on a standout element of a new project deserving of a deeper look. In this edition, we train our lens on The Cloudscape of Haikou, a transcendent building whose seemingly infinite volumes are formed by a single sweeping ribbon of concrete. 

Firm: MAD Architects (@madarchitects)

Space: The Cloudscape of Haikou

Location: Haikou, China

Conceptualization: Every architect thinks differently about design, and MAD Architects relies more on feeling. The design is particularly related to its location, its environment, and the architect’s reaction to it at the time. 

The first time the design team saw the sea, the feeling was “something is missing”—the coastline is long and beautiful, but it’s an objective existence, and it could be anywhere. The site lacks a place to “start,” a space to enter and start a journey. So this building could be a channel to “absorb people,” to leave everyday dimensions and feelings behind and let the imagination of the unknown emerge. 

Photography by Archexist
Photography by CreatAR Images

Colors and materials: MAD Champions an “anti-material” approach, avoiding the intentional expression of structure and construction, thus dissolving the inherent everyday perception of the material, and allowing the spatial feeling itself to become the main subject. Here, concrete is a liquid material, characterized by its flowing, soft, and variable structural form. 

How the layout flows: This small building is like a symphony, with its own chapters of rise and fall. It has a large center (a stepped reading space facing the sea that connects the first and second floors), slightly darker or narrower spaces, with a rich flowing quality.

To the south side of the pavilion is a library and reading space capable of holding 10,000 books, as well as a multi-functional audio-visual area, free and open for public use. Meanwhile, the building’s northern area features a café, public restrooms, barrier-free restrooms, showers, a nursery room, a public rest area, and a rooftop garden.

The cascading reading area facing the sea, which connects the first and second floors, is not exclusively for reading, but also a venue for cultural exchange activities. The children’s reading area is isolated from the main reading space, where skylights, holes, and niches stimulate the children’s desire to explore.  

The structural form creates several semi-outdoor spaces and platforms, which also serve as excellent spaces for people to read and gaze at the sea. In response to the local hot climate, the gray space of the building’s outer corridor is cantilevered to achieve comfortable temperatures, culminating in a sustainable, energy-saving structure. 

Photography by Archexist

Standout elements: The interior and exterior of the building are cast in fair-faced concrete to create a single cohesive, flowing form. The building’s circular openings are reminiscent of holes forged by wildlife or seas, blurring the boundary between architecture and nature. The varying sizes of the openings allow natural light into the interior and create a natural ventilation effect to cool the building in Haikou’s year-round warm climate. Through the holes, people observe the sky and sea, as if looking at a familiar world through the passage of time and space. This layering of atmospheres, and collision between people and space, creates a sense of living ritual.

A pleasant surprise: The building becomes an urban space that people would like to make part of their daily lives. We’re happy to see that many visitors come to feel the convergence of architecture, art, and nature, while enjoying the spirituality and sense of ritual in life here.

References of inspiration: Ten years ago, Ma Yansong went to see Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Sciences by the sea, and he once saw someone staring at the square facing the sea there, and then started to cry. That scene made a deep impression on him, like a temporary pause in his mind. He believes that architecture can pause, elongate, and even evacuate time, and he hopes to infuse the art of space with a sense of time.

The volume of Cloudscape is small, but it seems to have a particularly large spiritual world around it. It is up to each person to feel how far is behind the sea horizon. MAD Architect’s highest wish is that the building can transcend its function and have something spiritual, something that can move people and transcend time.

(FROM LEFT) Photography by Archexist. Photography by CreatAR Images

Favorite detail: The building’s interior volumes and exterior shape have been formed by a single, sweeping ribbon of concrete that creates a seamless flow of walls, floors, ceilings, entries, apertures, skylights, and terraces, celebrating concrete’s liquid nature. There are no internal and external corners in the building. All the joints and corners adopt free-form curved surfaces.

The building uses beamless floor slabs and the interior features double-layered waffle slabs with irregular shapes created by Maya architecture modeling. All mechanical, electrical, and plumbing elements are hidden within the concrete cavity to minimize their appearance and create visual consistency.

A teaser of your next project: The FENIX Museum of Migration, slated for completion by 2024, will be the first public cultural building in Europe to be designed by a Chinese architectural agency. 

Photography by Archexist
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