It’s hardly worth repeating that these days China tends to build big. A number of economic, political, and planning imperatives ensure that the megaprojects that have defined the 21st-century Chinese city probably aren’t going away anytime soon. But with their Youth Center in the historic river town of Qingpu, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai, the architects at Atelier Deshaus saw an opportunity within the bigness to create an urban pocket that’s more human scaled.

Commissioned by a state-owned real estate developer, the Youth Center occupies a 2.7-acre site tucked between a small river and a park in a new section of the city. Alongside creating a greater sense of intimacy, the project aimed to integrate vernacular qualities to counter the cookie-cutter sameness that’s also common among contemporary Chinese cities. What’s more, against the backdrop of an education system that’s better known for rote memorization, the center came with a brief to accommodate extracurricular programming for the area’s growing number of children and teenagers: namely by including facilities for theater, music, painting, calligraphy, and new media. “We decided to put [the various functions] into different building-objects, and arrange them like a community,” says Liu Yichun, who in 2001 founded Shanghai-based Atelier Deshaus—one of China’s leading emerging practices—with fellow Tongji University graduate Chen Yifeng (and a third founder, Zhuang Shen, who has since left the practice).

Indeed, the project’s 155,000 square feet are divided into 15 volumes, each no more than three stories high, to form a villagelike cluster. To the extent that Atelier Deshaus wanted to evoke the region’s traditional typologies and buildings—the latter with their whitewashed faÇades and gray-tiled roofs—the Youth Center creates something akin to a modern palimpsest. Huddled together, its buildings, each at a slightly different scale, offer not so much a historical re-creation as they do a fuzzy template of pure, rectilinear forms—some whitewashed, others seeming to dissolve behind detached, outer façades of white perforated metal. Through these metal screens, one can see flashes of the inner walls, painted green and yellow, while cutouts reveal irregularly placed, rectangular windows that correspond to the spaces inside.

Like other architects in China, Atelier Deshaus often draws from Chinese philosophy in addressing contemporary spatial issues. In this case, the “building-objects”—or more accurately, the relationships between and among them—reference Li (an aesthetic principal of detachment), being both defined and blurred by the compound’s pavered passageways, reflecting pond, courtyards and bridges, which wind around, through and above them. As they go, they lead from unambiguous, tightly defined spaces (a theater, a two-story library, dance studios, classrooms, and offices) to more ambiguous ones (an outdoor amphitheater, a rooftop pavilion, and a walled courtyard with rectangular planters that seems not quite a room nor entirely a garden). Put another way, for Atelier Deshaus, the Youth Center is not so much an assemblage or accumulation of volumes but a juxtaposition of autonomous yet interrelated fragments. “We realize that architecture can be an expression of detachment,” Liu says. And the end result, compared with a more regimented, conventional space, may well be a better, more stimulating learning environment for its users.

Youth Center of Qingpu
Project Youth Center of Qingpu, Shanghai
Client/Owner Shanghai Dianshanhu Newtown Development Co.
Architect Atelier Deshaus, Shanghai—Liu Yichun, Chen Yifeng (co-founders and principals); Gao Lin, Liu Qian, Wang Longhai (design team)
Interior Designer Atelier Deshaus & Vermilion Zhou
Mechanical, Electrical, Structural, and Civil Engineer Architectural Design & Research Institute of Tongji University Group
Geotechnical Engineer Shanghai Civil Defense Survey and Design Institute
Construction Manager Ma Juyun
General Contractor Shanghai Huaxin Construction (Group) Co. 
Landscape Architect Atelier Deshaus
Lighting Designer Zhu Tongyun
Size 154,570 square feet
Cost ¥52 million (CNY) ($8.3 million)

Materials and Sources
Ceilings Armstrong
Exterior Wall Systems Reinforced concrete frame structure
Flooring Boyn (self-leveling cement); Armstrong (linseed oil floor)
Glass Zhuogao Glass (insulating low-E glass)
HVAC VRV system 
Lighting Philips (fluorescent lamp)
Wallcoverings Dulux (water-based paints)
Walls Aerated concrete
Windows, Curtainwalls, and Doors Kesheng Curtainwalls Co. (aluminum alloy corrugated perforated plate curtainwall)