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Musashino Art University Library by Sou Fujimoto Architects, Tokyo, Japan

It is the plan of Musashino Art University Library by Sou Fujimoto Architects that brings distinction to the design, combining conceptual clarity with functional rigour. Photography by Edmund Sumner

At 6,500m², this is Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto’s largest building to date. Ever since his Children’s Treatment Centre in Hokkaido shared first prize in the 2006 AR Awards for Emerging Architecture, Fujimoto has become more widely known for an acclaimed range of smaller domestic projects. With six of his Japanese houses featured in these pages, the architect’s inventive use of space is familiar to many AR readers.

Until this point, however, Fujimoto’s ability to produce a large-scale institutional building has remained untested, so anyone interested in the scalability of his talents will be particularly keen to scrutinise the plans for the recently completed Musashino Art University Library in Tokyo.

As with all of Fujimoto’s projects the plan is the key generator. With T House (AR December 2005) he challenged conventional living arrangements with a series of radial walls that created alcoves for specific use. In his House at Tateyama (AR August 2007), he laid out spidery limbs to pinpoint specific views on a panoramic site. And in House N (AR April 2009), he used three nested boxes to create permeable layers of privacy for his client.

Here too, at the university library, it is the plan that brings distinction, as Fujimoto combines conceptual clarity with functional rigour to generate a new form of library planning.
Fujimoto won the project in 2007, beating a cohort of young architects consciously chosen by the client to design a building that would give the university a distinctive and marketable identity in order to attract students. Discussing the project with the AR at this year’s Venice Biennale, Fujimoto compares the purpose of his building with one by Toyo Ito, competed in 2007 for rival Tokyo institution Tama Art University (AR August 2007).

As the number of students in Japan continues to fall due to the demographics of an ageing nation and the high tuition fees that are now payable, attracting students is an essential part of any institution’s business plan. The competition for this commission was also high, including many of Fujimoto’s peers, such as Taira Nishizawa, elder brother of SANAA’s Ryue Nishizawa and joint winner of the 2005 AR Awards for Emerging Architecture. In the end, however, it was Fujimoto’s ‘forest of books’ concept that made an impact on the jury.

As previewed in the ‘Japan: Back to Basics’ issue (AR August 2007), the competition-winning concept was quite different to what was finally built. It was based on a series of independent rectilinear book stacks, dispersed to create a field - or forest - of monolithic blocks. Varying in size, with some large enough to contain essential services and ancillary spaces, the blocks promoted what the architect described as ‘an instinct to wander’, recalling how in his experience libraries are places where readers are encouraged to ‘get lost’.

Unfortunately, however, Fujimoto’s first design came under immediate concept-breaking scrutiny when user-group involvement began. While the institution wanted a landmark building for its campus, those who would ultimately run the library needed a functional building that would be an improvement on the existing library, which is soon to re-open as a gallery, also to Fujimoto’s design.

But in typical jovial manner, Fujimoto describes the redesign as a positive process, as he willingly took on criticisms about ease of navigation. The first design broke up the established numeric system of classification to produce a layout that would, it was claimed, have been impossible to manage, causing confusion and leading to too many scholars becoming ‘lost’.

He was asked to reconsider options that would offer linear as well as meandering routes between categories, ‘so we came up with the spiral plan’. This enabled him to provide ease of navigation along the length of the spiralling book stacks, while also giving opportunity for more accidental forms of wandering via a series of radial axes that fan out from the central control point on the first floor.

With large axial apertures, the opportunity then arose for Fujimoto to collaborate with renowned graphic designer Taku Satoh on the creation of a series of large-scale installations that bring clear orientation. The spiral plan also helped Fujimoto resolve the entrance sequence, as it uncoils at the north-east corner, where a freestanding punctured wall (recalling N House) creates a series of interstitial spaces that welcome visitors approaching along the campus’ cherry-tree-lined avenues.

A subsidiary entrance will also be provided when the adjoining gallery fit-out is complete, linking across the crescent-shaped void that embeds itself somewhat uncomfortably into the library’s south-east corner. Despite this, the principal entrance remains the focus of the new building, providing a route to Fujimoto’s grand stair. Connected to the outside world by a large axial window, this stair-cum-auditorium leads visitors up and into Fujimoto’s impressively re-imagined forest of books.

Within this ‘forest’, timber predominates, with the building’s steel frame cloaked in full-height wooden walls that give the impression they will eventually become full of books. It is unlikely that this will ever happen, however, not only for practical considerations of accessibility, but because not all the shelves have a load-bearing capacity. Regardless of this conceit, however, clarity of concept was maintained and the final configuration brings coherence and continuity to the interiors. Using plywood with an ash veneer, the blond timber works well with the diffuse light from the polycarbonate ceiling to provide a series of evenly lit, airy reading rooms. Externally, a darker timber is used, a result of the need to fire protect the envelope, with red cedar set in the same 900 x 300mm grid, cloaked in a sealed skin of 19mm float glass.

Architect Sou Fujimoto Architects, Tokyo, Japan
Project team Sou Fujimoto, Koji Aoki, Naganobu Matsumura, Shintaro Homma, Tomoko Kosami, Takahiro Hata, Yoshihiro Nakazono, Masaki Iwata
Structural engineers Jun Sato Structural Engineers, Kankyo Engineering
Graphic design Taku Satoh Design Office

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