Umimirai Library is a public library in the western part of Kanazawa, a slow 20-minute drive from the city center. Designed by Coelacanth-K&H Architects, an architecture firm based in Tokyo, and opened in June 2011, the three-story self-described “cake box” was intended to invigorate this sleepy area of town, a low-lying neighborhood of dreary houses and big box stores that lacked any hubs of activity or real public space. But ask the man on the street about it and you’ll most likely encounter a blank. We inquired at the Tourism Center for directions and even they had to google it. Apparently, not much happens in this part of town — not yet at least, which is sort of the point of the library.
The building is a large white box perforated with hole-punched windows that light up the interiors naturally in the day and at night glow out like portholes of a giant ship. There is a maritime feel to the place, probably unintended, or maybe since it was designed by a firm whose name evokes the ancient deep sea the contrary feelings of floating and drifting and being submerged are all by design. We could easily imagine how much we’d love coming here if this were our local, an airy place with soft, diffused light that lends room to learn, daydream, and to remember. Song lyrics echo in the mind: “…and our friends are all aboard / many more of them live next door…” It’s a peaceful, sublime place, this literary submarine.
The main reading room with its 40-foot ceilings provides a grand scale that all great libraries have, from the NYPL on Fifth Avenue to Suzzallo on the University of Washington campus. In fact, we liked Umimirai so much more than that other notable library in Seattle — Rem Koolhaas’ central library — a dazzling structure, no doubt, but a place that’s more like a puzzle than a place to retreat. Once you get past the spectacle of its punctured skin, the Umimirai Library is a comfortably traditional place. It’s no wonder the library is filled with young children, the elderly, and students — a library’s most loyal patrons. Sure there are modern features like glassed-in cellphone booths and self-service checkout stations. But we were most envious of the spacious newspaper reading room — an old man’s joy — with its canted desks, localized lighting, and drawers full of past days. Japan is a nation where the newspaper is still very much a part of everyday life, and that Coelacanth-K&H Architects featured this reality underscores the success of its design and their intent to insinuate the library into the community’s daily activities.
For us, so much about Japan feels like a bizarro alternate reality where — like with the newspaper that’s disappearing everywhere else — the rest of the world moves right while Japan turns left. This library feels no different. These days, investing in a new library seems like a counter-intuitive act where, at least in the U.S., branch libraries close one-by-one and already meager budgets continue to be slashed. It’s impossible, laughable even, to imagine our cramped Chinatown branch being replaced by the gleaming Umimirai Library … which says everything about this library and this town and why we love Japan so much. It feels like a luxury that a space like this was newly built, a sign that that the city believes in its people, that believes the act of reading is worth investing in, that believes these things will continue to matter in the future and that it’s important for these people and activities to come together in an inspiring and provocative space.