The new library of the Italian Institute of Culture in Tokyo

Recently I have had the pleasure to curate the renovation of the library at the Italian Institute of Culture in Tokyo, located in a building designed by the Italian architect Gae Aulenti and completed in 2005. The library has recently been reopened after a radical renovation and re-functionalization. The works have been realised with remarkable diligence by the General Contractor Shukoh Co. Ltd, a valued Japanese company with seventy years of experience in the field.

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The Italian Institute of Culture - directed by Professor Paolo Calvetti - aims to promote dialogue and integration between Italians and Japanese. The new venue is conceived as a gathering space that aims to promote the same amalgamation between the two cultures. Gae Aulenti already symbolically expressed this feature in her project, with the adoption of the shiny red that recalls the colour of Japanese lacquers. This synthesis of the two cultures is now re-proposed with flexible spaces furnished with a selection of the best Italian design.

The library is filled with over 15,000 volumes in Italian and Japanese, DVDs, CDs and various magazines that span several areas. It is conceived as a stimulating and comfortable space, a place to find the communication tools for the interchange. The project draws inspiration from the Japanese architectural culture – particularly the flexibility of space – by adapting the environment to the diverse activities promoted by the Institute. Furthermore, it is also inspired by the Italian architectural culture - especially the design, renowned worldwide - by providing the setting with the most elegant furniture designed by distinguished Italian designers. Based on these compositional principles, space has been divided into four functional zones as follows.

The first area is a multi-purpose environment at the entrance: a space to hold Italian courses, for reading, for relaxing with newspapers and magazines; a flexible paper wall separate this area from the path to the library; a large arch lamp welcomes visitors (Yumi by FontanaArte, designed by Shigeru Ban).

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The second area is the heart of the Library, a sort of inner courtyard with a large reading table in the center (Naòs by Unifor, designed by Pierluigi Cerri), surrounded by the pre-existing bookshelves (Libreria CF by Unifor, designed by Dante Bonuccelli) and new red shelves (Z-shelf by Moroso, designed by Ron Arad). The editorial novelties are housed in new custom-made libraries anchored on a pillar, inspired by the Continental by Joe Colombo (1965). This zone also includes a lounge spot equipped with free soft seating and armchairs (Pix and Saari by Arper). The external glass wall, freed from old furniture, allows today a pleasant introspection between the interior of the Institute and the urban exteriors.

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The third is reserved for offices and houses the staff of the Library. It is made of glass walls (Unifor RP, designed by Renzo Piano) on which the portraits of famous writers and poets who have honoured our country, from Calvino to Ginzburg, Pasolini, Morante, Montale and Deledda, are silk-screened. The prints are rendered abstracted closely through the halftone technique, but the represented subject returns perceptible at a distance.

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The fourth, more secluded, is behind the office area and is reserved for study and concentration (space illuminated by the lamps Tolomeo by Artemide, designed by Michele De Lucchi).

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Ecological materials, high-strength, low-maintenance vinyl floors and LED lamps have been adopted to complement library lighting. For information and communication, a magnetic board placed at the entrance allows traditional forms of messages while the innovation is given by three iPad Pro tablets freely usable by visitors. Cosy spaces - fitted with ecological materials and energy-saving systems - are dedicated to the consultation of books and magazines, to study, to attend language courses and meetings, as well as a working environment for the administrative staff of the Cultural Institute.

To underline, once again, the goal of reconciling the two Italian and Japanese cultures in this project, colour has also been used as a means of symbolic expression. The bright red that characterises the design of Gae Aulenti has been chosen as a colour for many furnishings and has been integrated with the other two primaries, yellow and blue, to signal discreet chromatic emergencies in environments with soft white walls and beige furnishings. The project proposes a new image for the Institute, but in continuity with tradition: a character familiar to the two Italian and Japanese cultures.

Matteo Belfiore