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In the city of Huzhou, China, Shanghai-based firm Wutopia Lab (a Record Design Vanguard firm in 2018) has created a fantastical dreamscape to be enjoyed by young and old alike. Called White Upland, the otherworldly design, which appears as a forest of abstract white trees, serves as the public entrance plaza for a retail center located along a busy thoroughfare. The 35,000-square-foot outdoor area, loosely inspired by the Surrealist paintings of René Magritte, stands in striking contrast to the surrounding metropolis, about 100 miles west of Shanghai.

White Upland.

The dreamlike environment is distinguished by its layers of whiteness and its forest of “trees,” with their steel trunks and petal-shaped canopies. Photo © CreatAR Images, click to enlarge.

Wutopia Lab founder Yu-Ting, who describes his firm’s work as “magical realism,” says the driving force of the project was to design something completely different—an escape from the humdrum residential towers that characterize most contemporary Chinese cities. Like the studio’s other projects—which include fairy tale–themed cafés for children, art galleries, “humble urban space revivals,” and the soaring, domed Sinan Books Poetry Store—White Upland is distinguished by its layers, organic shapes, and distinct approach to materiality and color (or lack thereof). The architects used 108 steel columns of varying heights to create a panorama of “trees”; throughout, they wove in distinct areas, including a Zen garden, a carousel, and an enclosed pavilion that emulates the starry night sky. Adding to the dreamlike ambience, Yu-Ting incorporated natural elements and sensations—such as mist, mini-waterfalls, pockets of sand, a selection of regional trees and rocks, and a bonfire pit—among the artifices.

White Upland.

Photo © CreatAR Images

Commissioned by the owner of the retail center to make the low-slung rectilinear structure more enticing to passersby, White Upland succeeds to the point of hiding its ordinary neighbor behind its complexity. This is especially true at night, when the columns are illuminated, bathing the entire plaza in a bright, white glow. A mixture of architecture, landscape, and art installation, the project offers visitors the chance to take part in an unusual spectacle, transforming a trip to the mall into an exceptional experience. Says Yu-Ting, the project is a “manifesto of the anti-generic city.”