Tama Art University Library

by | 17. May 2013

Cultural | Educational | Library | Project

Tama Art University Library. Exterior view from the north-east. Photo by Iwan Baan

By Jakob Harry Hybel

Seen from a distance, Tama Art University Library’s razor-sharp concrete arches resemble those of a Roman aqueduct. But these associations come to a sudden end once you enter the building and find a wide-stretched cavernous and arcade-like space.

The library, which is the Northern gateway to Tama Art University’s Hachioji Campus in the suburbs of Tokyo, is Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s modern interpretation of a cave. To emphasize the motif of the cave, Ito wanted the library to be excavated In his original proposal, but due to budget constraints, he had to invert his idea and raise it to the first floor.

Despite the changes he was forced to make, Ito remained true to the project’s main focus. Namely, for the ground floor of the building to be an open space, where students and teachers would cross paths, even if they were not going to use the library.

The floor of the ground level follows the slope of the surrounding terrain allowing the building to blend in with its natural surroundings, blurring of the lines between inside and outside. It almost seems like the ground has eroded away under the building.

A Modulated, Emergent Grid

Ito shares Mies van der Rohe’s fascination with the grid as a parametric and therefore boundless geometry. But unlike Mies, who explored the static potential of the grid, Toyo Ito seeks to distort and modulate it, to get what he calls an “emergent grid”.

In Tama Art University Library, Toyo Ito worked very closely with structural engineer Mutsuro Sasaki to come up with an emergent grid of curved lines where the load is evenly distributed in its 56 intersecting points. This allowed for the carving of the arches in a way, so the thinnest part is where they touch the floor – much like the stalactites that inspired the project. Thus, the heavy concrete construction seems almost impossibly light.

Though the building’s 166 arches, varying in width from 1.8 to 16 m, follows the same grid on both levels, not two of them are exactly alike, as the floor slopes at the ground floor while the roof slants at the first floor.


Tama Art University Library. Studying area with tables along the curved facades. Photo by Iwan Baan

Loose Spatial Division

The library on the first floor has a completely open plan made possible by the grid – one large fluid, continuous space with no walls, just arches. The furniture – all of which designed by Kazuko Fuji – plays a key part in the perception of spatial division in this wide, open space.

In the South-facing end where the roof is lowest, there is a formal zone defined by the high, rectilinear shelves, while in the North-facing end, a more informal reading and studying area is indicated by low, sinuous shelves loosely following the curves of the grid.


Tama Art University Library. The reflecting surfaces of the sinous tables brings the surrounding nature inside. Photo by Ishiguro Photographic Institute

The fact that the shelves in the studying area are below eye level, enables the library-goers to see the crowns of the surrounding trees every which way they look. In this way, the “actual” nature is brought into the building and contrasts the mimicked nature inside.

The successive generation of tension [is what] makes space exciting.
/ Toyo Ito

Nature and Technology

Using one of the oldest, most classical architectural staples – the arch – but associating it with a natural phenomenon – the stalactites – Toyo Ito adds a sense of ambiguity to an otherwise clear motif. The arches that seem so rational from the outside crisscross in a perspective-distorting chaos when seen from within.

The strive not just to mimic nature through technology, but to create a new fusion between the two, permeates much of Toyo Ito’s work. This very sensitive but technology-based approach has inspired a completely new mindset in a whole generation of young, Japanese architects. It is also one of the reasons that Ito was recently, deservedly and well overdue, honored with the 2013 Pritzker Prize.


Tama Art University Library. Exterior view from the north. Photo by Ishiguro Photographic Institute


Tama Art University Library. Exterior view from the north-west. Photo by Iwan Baan


Tama Art University Library. The curving arches mimicking stalacites. Photo by Iwan Baan


Tama Art University Library. Interior view. Photo by Ishiguro Photographic Institute



CITYHachioji, Tokyo
ARCHITECTToyo Ito & Associates Architects
Kajima Design
Kajima Corporation