The Solitary Pop
Vector Architects’ Seashore Library [sic]1

Ricky Ruihong Li

Nestled on a pristine beach against nothing but a stretch of seascape is the Seashore Library 海边图书馆, a reading room squarely fitted into a blocky two-floored. It is made of bare concrete, with accents of unadorned wood panels and black steel rails. The material construction supplies an austere tactility that floats somewhere between the minimal and the cheap. Well-articulated, it is segmented into four parts: an entrance, a study hall, a meditation cell, and an activity room. Its design appears negotiated and surgical as if it is a scheme tailored for a prime urban slot. The site, however, remains anonymous and irrelevant, what is of importance here though is the ethereal scene that surrounds the architecture, meriting the potential for many photogenic sojourns.

To be quite honest with you, I’ve never been to the Seashore Library. The scenic architecture introduced above stems from on a variety of representations that I encountered on the Internet, particularly a five-minute video released in 2015. Entitled The Loneliest Library in China, it was produced by the then-nascent advertisement company, Yi Tiao 一条, which in recent years has fully-fledged into one of the few digital marketing chokepoints catering to the ever-growing marketplace of the Mandarin-speaking middle class.2 From the aerial footage that establishes the subject against the marine horizon to the occasional glimpses of the sea that flash across the navigating interior shots, the video throws into stark relief an oceanic mise en scène, backdropping the cement object from afar. 

Dong Gong 董功, the founding partner of Vector Architects 直向建筑事务所 and the principal designer of the Seashore Library, is featured in the video introducing his design in a soothing tone. “There is a dense, nonvolatile feeling of solitude that I could never let go,” he begins by disclosing his love affair with Baleen, an oil painting by the American artist, Andrew Wyeth. The seascape does the work both in Baleen as well as in “the loneliest library.” With a warmly tinted, desaturated filter and a hypnotic soundtrack overlaid, the thalassic milieu is fashioned into an imaginary refuge, accentuating a reclusive architecture in voluntary exile. It sustains the desire of a total withdrawal from social relations by affording the trite, if not archaic, symbolism of the sea as an undisturbed nature of innocence devoid of any corruption of society (if not socialism).

The forceful pretense of loneliness is further underscored by Dong’s mystical insistence on a phenomenal reading of his design. He puts, “when you walk into the building, you will feel the touch by the space.” The Beijing-based architect further maintains, “I want the sunlight that penetrates the windows to enliven the rooms, as it breathes and becomes sentimental and moody.” For Dong, his art takes place at the transcendental moment when the subject is phenomenally present in the space, absorbing the oozing sensuousness of the architectural here and now.

Seamlessly so, the phenomenal and the picturesque merged into a fanatic dream of solitary exit that would be proven terribly popular. Upon my writing of this text, the short video has converted more than 520 billion views, making it one of the most circulated advertising stunts on the Internet. Thanks to Yi Tiao, the reading room observed an abrupt inflow of tourists so significant that the facility would put in place a reservation policy to control the number of the inpourings. The viral effect of the short video would only amplify later on, as the visitors, most equipped with Go-Pros, drones, and selfie sticks, were, in turn, feeding into the circuit with more posts, vlogs, and reviews.

The Seashore Library exemplifies the solitary pop, a renewed architectural repertoire that registers the dated painterly fantasy of escapism and architecture’s bleak obsession with phenomenology into the recent mediatic reality measured by clicks, likes, and shares. More than an accidental oxymoron, the solitary pop lurks inside the impulse of contemporary architecture that is predicated on the exacerbating unease and anxiety of the static discipline in the ever-liquefied neoliberal world. The solitary pop would soon realize its proliferation, as our phenomenal space would be exponentially flooded by the swirls of data, algorithms, and finance, subjugating the long-fetishized here and now of architecture to the attention economy of influence.

“When you are finally here, you might be a little disappointed,” an uploader confesses in his YouTube vlog, “but when you try to frame the view with your camera, you’d realize that this place can easily generate images. The blue sea and sky, so photogenic!”3

RICKY RUIHONG LI is a writer and researcher, currently operating in the program of Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture (CCCP) in Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He produces editorial and curatorial work that occupies terrains of ecologies, media, archives, and environmental politics and aesthetics.

1.According to an online review, the building’s name is a misnomer. The facility only suffices to be a community reading room due to its limit of public service and absence of librarian protocol.
2.Yi Ttiao 一条. The Loneliest Library in China. 2015.
3.BIGDONGDONG. “#085 生活VLOG 最孤独图书馆,” 00:04:00-00:04:18.

Image Credits: Stills taken from: Yi Tiao 一条. the Loneliest Library in 2015.