With its iconic arches, Toyo Ito’s new library at Tama Art University has the aura of a Romanesque building. But caves, not compression structures, were the architect’s inspiration, so any similarities to European antecedents are merely superficial. And unlike the straightforward, repetitive systems used historically, Ito’s high-tech concrete curves—each one different—tiptoe gracefully in multiple directions throughout the building.
The building marks the final stage in the development of the 45-year-old campus, one of two belonging to the multimedia art school where Ito serves as a guest professor. Located 16 miles west of central Tokyo, the hilly, 39-acre property abuts open land once earmarked for residential development but still fallow in 2007. Housed in a collection of concrete-and-glass buildings bound by tree-lined streets, the school enrolls 3,600 students who commute daily to its studio and performing arts facilities. Ito’s library commands a choice site overlooking the university’s main gate and the public bus stop beyond it. Defined on two sides by bowed walls, it makes a strong first impression: monumental without being a monument, and contextual in scale and material without getting lost in the shuffle.
To capitalize on the building’s strategic location, Ito first wanted to submerge the library and top it off with a single-story gathering place where students and professors could cross paths and exhibit their work. But this idea did not go over well with the university administration, which envisioned a conventional 3- or 4-story building with a gallery below. Also, buried infrastructure prevented a full-scale site excavation. Despite these roadblocks, Ito was unwilling to abandon his original concept altogether. So he inverted his underground grotto and turned it into a 60,700-square-foot building with a single, large space on each of its two stories, each one loosely divided into functional zones by arcades.