The brick-and-mortar bookstore, a business model that’s become endangered over the past few decades thanks to massive online booksellers, has all but disappeared in many parts of the world. In some areas, it’s quietly faded into the background, becoming so obscure that only a few patrons wander in now and then. Even when someone does enter, it’s mainly for a dose of nostalgia.

In Shanghai, Chinese architectural firm Wutopia Lab has bravely chosen to turn an entire historical building into a bookstore, transforming the four-story structure into not just a sanctuary for learning and thinking, but a symbolic map of the human psyche.

The inside of Wutopia Lab's new Sinan Books bookstore

The Idea Behind Sinan Books

Sinan Books: Shanghai Sanctum is the latest restoration in the Sinan Mansions development project, which previously saw a number of Luwan district colonial structures from the 1920s and 30s transformed into brand new exhibition halls, museums, and restaurants. Instead of just assigning different types of books to different levels of the store, the Wutopia Lab team chose to visualize the building as a model of the human mind, with each individual part making a significant contribution to the whole.

The inside of Wutopia Lab's new Sinan Books bookstore A door inside Wutopia Lab's new Sinan Books bookstore

The first level, which is actually an underground floor, represents the subconscious, showcasing a compilation of history and philosophy books on shelves organized as a playful maze. The entryway on the next floor makes up the heart of the store, where people can interact at a low-key café and read in a setting modeled off of a traditional Sinan living room. The third floor boasts art exhibits and room for literary events and serene music recitals. In short, this space is focused on the eyes and ears. At the top of the venue is the brain, a level reserved for intense learning and heavy contemplation of all life’s questions, answers, and mysteries. Cozy rooms for singles or couples to read together are nestled throughout every floor.

Promotional materials outlining the symbolic layout of Wutopia Lab's new Sinan Books bookstore

The architects say of the project: “Sinan Books is seen as a person with a system of acquiring knowledge while discovering oneself and the surrounding, considering one’s mind, thoughts, perception, and subconscious. The entrance features a red arcade, indicating Sinan Books’ attitude of openness. Different hues of green [offset] the exhibition spaces while the gold of the reading room is a hidden surprise.” They add that the black and white design on the top floor was chosen to “encourage one to face oneself.”

Finishing Touches

The outside of Wutopia Lab's new Sinan Books bookstore

Wutopia Lab may have given their representation of the human psyche an insane amount of attention to detail, but that doesn’t mean they neglected the bookstore’s exterior. The south patio on the ground floor has been transformed into an alluring porch covered in multicolored flowers and lush planters, effectively creating a living veneer for the bookstore within. The architects also revealed that the top-floor terrace was covered with white marble to produce a feeling of buoyancy above the heavy layers of knowledge below. Above all else, they hope the store acts “like a lighthouse, guiding people’s learning and thinking.”