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As an island nation, the significance of water in Japanese culture cannot be understated. From artistic motifs to spiritual rituals, water carries a deeply ingrained symbolic presence. So when it came time to rebuild a library at the heart of Matsubara’s civic centre, it was surprising that the client planned to fill in the city park’s reservoir pond to make way for the new structure. Fortunately, local firm MARU.architecture proposed an alternate approach — one that embraces, rather than opposes, the library’s unique locale.

Inspired by traditional burial mounds, or kofun, found in the Osaka prefecture — which are often surrounded by moats — the architects chose to build out into the pond, fabricating an illusion of a floating monolith. From the street, however, the concrete structure appears grounded within Matsubara’s urban fabric.

PHOTO: Shinkenchiku-sha

From the architects’ initial concept sketch, a dialogue between the building and its context is emphasized, reflective of the Japanese philosophy of elements. The symbolic contrast between Earth (chi) and the surrounding water (shi) drives the design. Balanced by the pond’s fluidity, the concrete structure conveys an intentional sense of timelessness.

Concept sketch of the Matsubara Civic Library.

“The power and mass of the outer walls render the contrasting movements of people and the natural world more noticeable, giving rise to a sense of passing time,” the firm explains, “Our hope is that it will continue to be a part of this community for many years to come.”

PHOTO: Kai Nakamura

The library’s solid appearance is no accident — its reinforced concrete walls are three times thicker than typically specified, built to withstand the elements. The building’s sheer weight makes its apparent buoyancy all the more astonishing. Not only do the walls provide necessary insulation and protection from the adjacent water, they are designed to endure the seismic force of Japan’s frequent earthquakes.

PHOTO: Kai Nakamura

The envelope is as striking as it is sturdy. The board-formed concrete retains textural traces of the construction process on the facade, which according to the architects was intended to “gracefully reflect the passage of time”, adding another layer to the building-as-monument metaphor.

PHOTO: Shinkenchiku-sha

With the exterior walls doing much of the heavy lifting, the interior remains free of obtrusive structural elements. This allowed the designers to implement a split-level plan, fostering an open and airy ambiance within the otherwise bunker-esque building.

PHOTO: Kai Nakamura

From a continuous reveal along the ceiling’s perimeter, an ethereal glow cascades down the concrete walls, amplifying the effect. Coupled with the winding interior circulation, the lighting makes for a memorably sensory experience. Throughout, staggered floor plates reveal glimpses of what is to come as visitors meander through the space.

PHOTO: Kai Nakamura
PHOTO: Shinkenchiku-sha

On the ground floor, open stacks bookended with resin mortar plates mimic the building’s concrete exterior, while wood furnishings and trim impart a subtle warmth. Upstairs, a generous double-height reading area invites patrons to look out into the space below, while intimate terraces carved out from the building’s corners provide a point of connection to the pond outside.

PHOTO: Kai Nakamura

The windows — though they are few — provide ample natural light, framing views out to the reservoir pond for readers to admire. And, despite their irregular placement, the design choice is far from random — the openings in the façade are carefully positioned to pull in cool air from the pond for natural ventilation.

PHOTO: Shinkenchiku-sha

The strategy transcends all the way up to the library’s rooftop garden, a natural insulator that harvests rainwater as an added bonus. This intervention — and the building at large — reflects an architectural sensibility of reconciling the natural with the artificial, and finding fleeting moments with permanence.

PHOTO: Shinkenchiku-sha
In Japan, A Floating Library Embraces The Elements

Local firm Maru Architecture draws on Matsubara’s cultural and environmental context to create a monumental space.

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