Kuanzhai Alley is the collective name for three parallel roads running through downtown Chengdu, encompassing Kuan Alley, Zhai Alley and Jing Alley.
The trio of streets dates back to the Qing dynasty. But since the early 2000s, it has become populated with a number of trendy shops, bars, restaurants and cafes including % Arabica, which now occupies a former home.
Informed by these bustling streets, BLUE Architecture Studio designed the coffee brand’s latest outpost to be “like a small neighbourhood where people can stroll and stay for a while”.
“We believe that a cafe provides more than just a drink,” explained the studio. “More significantly, coffee provides opportunities for people to gather, communicate and fully experience the local urban culture.”
“By extending the vibrant living and cultural atmosphere of the alley into the cafe, we renovated the site to make it a dynamic public space that provides a rich and solid experience,” the studio added.
A pavement-style pathway runs through % Arabica‘s meandering interior, formed from the same grey bricks that are ubiquitous to the Kuanzhai Alley area.
More of the bricks have been used to make the cafe’s planters, as well as a few blocky benches that invite people to perch and chat.
Alternatively, customers can occupy slightly more private seating booths in one corner of the cafe, which are lined with handmade white bricks.
Orders can be placed at a huge white counter at the rear of the plan, conceived as a kind of “roadside shop” that customers stumble upon while strolling down the cafe’s winding path.
At the centre of the building, BLUE Architecture Studio reinstated an open-air courtyard that the previous occupants had covered with a pitched roof.
Surrounded by glass panels, the new courtyard is filled with a bed of white pebbles and a shallow pool of water.
Running around the perimeter of the space is a sequence of all-white counters and stools, allowing customers to people-watch while enjoying their coffee.
“The specific experience of seeing and being seen helps to enhance the interest of the space,” said BLUE Architecture Studio.
“People can walk, rest and enjoy time freely in the cafe,” the studio continued. “The vibrant scene stands for a reappearance of life from old Chengdu.”
Back in 2020, the studio designed the coffee brand’s Shanghai outpost as a U-shaped glass box so that visitors can observe the streets beyond.
The photography is by Zhi Xia.