Bookcases Galore – University Library in Tokyo

Japanese Sou Fujimoto Architects stands behind The Musashino Art University Library in Tokyo.

When architecture students are asked to design a place to read in, some of their initial proposals are – inevitably – buildings that look like books. Armed with lengthy commonsense explanations about symbolism in architecture and the relationship between form and function, teachers move quickly to strangle at birth such naïve attempts to demonstrate that the only physical form of reading must be in the actual shape of the book. The statement a book-like building makes seems so obvious: even allowing for the massive transposition of scale, who could ever doubt what goes on inside?

Taking a more kindly view of such naivety, these proposals could be considered to be based, however unconsciously, on important libraries where the relationship between design, construction and book, or rather, books was a determining factor in their design. To give the students their due, if we leave aside “reading” – a vague term at best – and use the more precise architectural term “library”, it’s worth remembering that Dominique Perrault’s Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1997) consists of four angular towers whose L-shaped plans were inspired by the form of open books.

Obviously, this suggestive image is transposed by visual and factual alteration to make the end result immune to any kind of figurative temptation, whereas in our students’ projects, especially the less expert ones, you find the kind of expressive mimesis – libraries that look like real (hopefully) leather-bound books with gilt lettering on their spines – that could easily belong to Reyner Banham’s selection of doughnuts, hot-dogs and other mimetic buildings in Los Angeles. Returning to the Bibliothèque Nationale, the furious rows between the librarians and Perrault over whether the solar light filtering through the glass facades of the towers would damage the books stacked inside them reveal the cultural and social preconceptions of libraries that are fundamental to their identity.

Libraries exist to preserve an intellectual heritage recorded on paper. Since the destruction by fire of the Library of Alexandria, caring if authoritarian custodianship of the written and printed heritage has been seen as paramount and needs to be preserved at all costs. Only then might libraries be seen as places for reading and research. Libraries are set apart from human beings; they are created for eternity and must guarantee that their contents are safe from destruction. By what may seem an ironic coincidence, the world’s most technologically advanced libraries, like the manuscript sections of the British Library and the Vatican Library, have artificial low-oxygen atmospheres and are almost totally automated. The human beings who enter are given oxygen sensors and timers: without them they would faint after 15 minutes. In “The Name of the Rose” it was a book that killed; in today’s libraries, an entire collection may be a health hazard.

The accumulation, preservation and cataloguing of books imposes specific requirements (for example, passageways and corridors are determined by the layout of the shelving), protecting books requires complicated technology, and even the weight of books determines the strength, and therefore the size and shape of support structures. In some recent examples, like OMA’s library in Seattle, the catalogue system and the resultant ordering of the books (by ISBN number, not subject) is the core of the building design: basically, we are dealing with a warehouse open to the public where books are laid out in a single continuous strip.

The Musashino Art University Library by Sou Fujimoto Architects draws attention to these issues by incorporating them as project themes. In the project it is impossible to separate preservation and reading, which generate a unified spatial experience. The plan follows a spiral (based on the assumption that the library will grow, a reference to Le Corbusier’s Musée à croissance illimitée project of 1939). This seems the opposite and inverse of OMA’s Seattle design, which places the books at the core, surrounded by other functions and facilities. In Tokyo, the books are allowed to engulf space and become visible from the outside.

The load-bearing structure is concealed, though it seems to be made of full-height wood shelving that supports the ceiling. Here, books morph into building blocks that constitute and articulate space, and they are placed on view, even from the outside, as if to underline their continuing importance in the dawning age of digital reading.

Reading areas, reference stations, staircases and bathrooms occupy the interstitial spaces of the spiral, whose linear progression is broken by further radial axes offering opportunities for more accidental forms of wandering, and even getting lost. Lost, perhaps, though not as desperate as the librarians who are obsessively searching for the Book of Truth in Borges’ “The Library of Babel.”

The project for the library of the Musashino Art University in Kodaira, a Tokyo suburb, derives from a competition held in 2007. The general layout is based on a spiral that accommodates both the stacks and a variety of reading and consultation areas. The entrances and internal circulation are strategically placed in relation to pedestrian flows on campus. The building’s load-bearing structure consists of steel sections supporting a polycarbonate roof designed to soften and transmit overhead light. The shelving, which wraps round the structural pillars, is made of ash-veneered plywood to produce a golden tone. The building’s outer skin, design to fire-protect the envelope, consists of red cedar cladding covered in structural float glass.

Story from: Arbitare

Read more: Sou Fujimoto

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