A cross-section of modern Japanese architectural history from Meiji to Ando

The International Library of Children’s Literature draws visitors from all over the world, not only for its books, but also for its architecture, designed by the world-renowned Tadao Ando.

By Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Photo: Mitsuo Matsuoka

International Library of Children's Literature appearance 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Join us on a tour of the library that itself has a story to tell about the past century of modern Japanese history.

Tadao AndoUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Making the past live in the present

The International Library of Children’s Literature is housed in a strikingly majestic building befitting its status as a branch of the National Diet Library. Designated as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government architectural structure of historical value, the library is well-known among architecture aficionados, who visit from around the world to see how the maestro Tadao Ando blended past and present when renovating the structure in 2002. As the architect explained:
“I was asked to renovate the former Imperial Library, built in 1906, to create Japan’s first national children’s library. When approaching the project, my goal was to not just ‘preserve’ the old, but to make it ‘live’ in the present. In other words, my task was to breathe life into the bones of a century-old building.”

Tadao Ando
Photo: Kinji Kanno

International Library of Children's Literature VideoUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Imperial Library in the Meiji eraUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

①Meiji era Imperial Library

The current Brick Building of the International Library of Children’s Literature is a literal outgrowth of the former Imperial Library. Erected in 1906, the Imperial Library was designed by Hideo Mamizu and Masamichi Kuru. Kuru, an architect from the Ministry of Education, studied under Josiah Conder, the great British architect tapped by the Meiji government to steward a series of ambitious state-sponsored projects. Modeled after the Newberry Library in Chicago, which was at the vanguard of public libraries in America at the time, the men sought to create ''the grandest library in the Orient.'' Even today, the building is heralded as a representative surviving example of Meiji-era Western architecture in the Renaissance style.

Courtesy of the International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library

Meiji Era:Normal reading roomUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

①Meiji era Author-approved

Contemporary accounts of the Imperial Library (commonly referred to as simply the ''Ueno Library'') can be found in the writings of many of Japan's greatest authors, who were regular library patrons. Everyone from Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Katai Tayama, Kenji Miyazawa and Junichiro Tanizaki is said to have perused the library's stacks. The below photo shows the 3rd floor Reading Room (present-day Museum) as it looked in the early Showa era. The distinctive support columns featured designs in the Corinthian style of the ancient Greek temples.

Courtesy of the International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library

Showa EraUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

②Showa era From Meiji to Showa

The Imperial Library was an enormously popular destination in its heyday. Long lines of people snaked outside the building in the early hours of the morning, awaiting their turn for a seat at the reading room’s long tables. The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake further increased demand, as the Imperial Library was one of the few to survive the temblor and resulting fires that ravaged Tokyo. To accommodate the city’s displaced readers, the library decided to expand its premises, adding a state-of-the-art reinforced concrete wing onto the south side of the archetypical Meiji era brick building.

Courtesy of the International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library

After the Second World WarUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

②Showa era From Imperial Library to National Diet Library

After the National Diet Library Law was enacted in 1948, the library was integrated with the National Diet Library system. Recommissioned as the Ueno Branch Library, the building was subsequently used to store PhD theses and other archival documents until the Heisei era.

Courtesy of the International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library

Heisei period 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

③Heisei era The birth of a Library for children, ILCL

The library turned a new page with the dawn of the Heisei era, amid growing momentum for the establishment of a national children’s library to promote literacy and reading habits. In 1996, the first plans were outlined for the International Library of Children’s Literature, with the aim of inspiring international understanding among the youth. After extensive renovation of the old building, the new children’s library was partially opened to the public in 2000, and became fully operational in 2002. 

The task of updating the building’s century-long legacy with modern renovations was entrusted to internationally acclaimed architect Tadao Ando:

“The idea was to utilize the old in the present. Working within this theme, we designed the Brick Building with glass boxes that cut across the old brick façade in a harmonious collision between past and present.”

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Heisei Period 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

③Heisei era Arch Bld. annex

The original plan for the Imperial Library called for a central courtyard, which was never completed. The library finally received its long-awaited courtyard thanks to Ando’s renovations, with the addition of the Arch Building, completed in 2015. Trees that had  spent over a century in the shadows of the library’s brick became the focal point of a central courtyard that symbiotically bridged the old Brick Building and the modern Arch Building addition. In a further environmentally conscious flourish, the roof of the Arch Building was outfitted with an array of solar panels.

Photo: Shinsuke Kera (Urban Arts)

Brick building lounge 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 3rd Floor: Lounge

One particularly elegant integration of past and present can be seen on the 3rd floor lounge area which was added to the west side of the Brick Building. Ando ensconced the Meiji era bricks in a glass façade that transformed the space in 2000. A place of rest, the mix of brick and glass also immerses visitors in a singular confluence of past and present.

Photo: Mitsuo Matsuoka

Brick building lounge 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 3rd Floor: Lounge

International Library of Children’s Literature in the Present Brick Building 3rd Floor: Lounge   ''If I were pressed to name one highlight of the International Children's Library, it would have to be the 3rd floor lounge of the west flank. The space evokes a traditional engawa (veranda), tucked between brick wall and glass. But the most interesting aspect of the building is all the detail of the extant structure that could only be inscribed by the passage of time. I hope children take curious notice and reach out to feel the weight and substance of time. I think that will be an enriching experience.''

The 3rd floor lounge of the brick building as seen from the courtyard.
Photo: Mitsuo Matsuoka

Museum 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 3rd Floor: Museum

The former reading room, which was beloved by generations of patrons of the Imperial Library, has been reimagined as a museum that hosts exhibitions showcasing the world of children's books. The space's luxurious 10-meter ceilings are complemented by the graceful curves of a cylindrical room-within-a-room designed by Ando as part of the renovation. The ceiling, chandelier, and plasterwork are all faithful restorations based on period photographs.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Museum 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 3rd Floor: Museum

The passageway connecting the Museum with the stacks features elaborately framed wooden doors that form an aedicule, a term that share its etymology with the small shrines of ancient Rome. The double doors swing open, leading to the stacks on the right, while the left reveals the one place in the library where visitors can see the exposed century-old brick used in the inner support structure.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

HallUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 3rd Floor: Hall

A Showa era extension that formerly served as a reading room has been repurposed as an event space and exhibition hall that introduces the International Library of Children’s Literature. The retro wall and chandelier detail imbue the space with a comforting nostalgia and preserve the atmosphere of the earlier expansion for posterity.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Grand StaircaseUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building: Grand Staircase

The most impressive of all the original Meiji era embellishments has to be the Grand Staircase, whose cast iron stair rail snakes dynamically from the first floor up toward the vaulted ceiling 20 meters overhead. From the staircase to handrails, doors, and chandeliers, the area is a valuable time capsule that preserves the decorative flourishes exactly as they would have been appreciated in yesteryear. In particular, the wood paneling affixed to the underside of each flight of stairs is a lavish touch that is rarely seen in the interior décor of today.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Gallery of Children's LiteratureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 2nd Floor: Gallery of Children’s Literature

The original building’s former Special Reading Room has been converted into the Gallery of Children’s Literature, an exhibition space tracing the history of Japanese children’s books from the Meiji era to the present day. The four magnificent columns that stand in the center of the room exemplify the takekomai technique, in which fine strips of bamboo lathing were wrapped around the columns and sheathed in hemp cloth to create a natural, gentle curve. The columns are a contemporary restoration that recreates techniques that would have been used at the time, while the chandelier is a restoration of the one added during the 1929 expansion work.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH) 

Meet the World1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 1st Floor: Meet the World

Few visitors to the Imperial Library were ever able to get a glimpse inside the opulent VIP Room, which was formerly closed off to the general public. Following the transition to the International Library of Children’s Literature, the building’s crown jewel is now open for everyone to enjoy as the Meet the World room, stocked with a wide lineup of foreign language picture books and other reading material that introduces the geography, history, and cultures of countries around the world. Restorers carefully blended traditional materials to make the plaster that coats the ceiling and walls. The exquisite parquet flooring dates to the Meiji era and has been polished back to its former luster.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Meet the World2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 1st Floor: Meet the World

Visitors who look up at the ceiling of Meet the World will notice the delicate reliefs dawn by trowel in the kote-e technique, using plaster made from a mix of shell lime, limestone, red algae, and sand. Achieved entirely by hand, the meticulous attention to detail involved in the restoration work required over a year for the plastering alone.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Children's LibraryUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Brick Building 1st Floor: Children’s Library

The former newspaper storage room now houses the Children’s Library, stocked with thousands of books for children. Ando designed the curved bookshelves and tables for the renovation. Illuminated by wall-to-wall ceiling lights, books can be read clearly anywhere in the room without shadows on the page.

Photo: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Brick building lounge 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

A library for all ages in Ueno

“Society functions as a result of the interconnections and mutual support shown between children, adults, and senior citizens. In the same way, I want cities to be places where old and new overlap to hand down memories across the generations. I think the International Library of Children’s Literature is a symbol of this ideal world, connecting past and present. I feel great hope in the library’s mission to connect the world through children’s books and steward the future, at a time when the joys of reading are at risk of being swallowed up in the turbulent tides of the digital age. Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I try to peek in the International Library of Children’s Literature. I’m always curious to see how the buildings that I’ve worked on are taking root and breathing in sync with their communities.”

Photo: Mitsuo Matsuoka

Credits: Story

Courtesy of Implementation Committee for New Concept "Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture” (Ueno Cultural Park)
 
Special thanks:
International Library of Children’s Literature
Tadao Ando Architect & Associates
 
Interview/Text/Editing:
Ai Yoshida
 
Photos:
Mitsuo Matsuoka
Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.)
Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)
Shinsuke Kera (Urban Arts)
 
Video/Editing: INTO THE LIGHT inc.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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