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Designed by the architect Tadao Ando, Nakanoshima Children’s Book Forest (Kodomo Hon no Mori) in Osaka is a library but also a new chapter in venerating the book in an increasingly digital world. “I had worked on facilities for children before,” says Ando, 79, of the space that opened in July. “Through those projects, I have been thinking about what I could do for children as an architect. I wanted to execute the idea of creating a facility in which children can read as much as possible. Reading is an essential part of nurturing our abilities to judge, express and raise creativity.” 

In 2017, Ando pitched a proposal to the authorities in Osaka that he would design a children’s library, with his office shouldering the design and construction fees, and donate it to his native city. The result is a signature concrete structure with a three-storey atrium and plenty of natural light. The interior is warm, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves housing 18,000 books. Graphics and logos designed by art director Fumikazu Ohara of design studio Bootleg catch the eye of visitors of all ages, while Artek n65 children’s chairs, handpicked by Ando, allow space to enjoy the literary bounty in comfort.

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Floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves fill the three levels

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Open, welcoming exterior

There is also a sense of play, with staircases and a bridge running across the space. “I wanted to create a place where people can enjoy the building simply by walking in and around it,” says Ando. “When you walk through this labyrinth of knowledge, glimpses of the Dojima River appear between bookshelves. You’ll also come across a mysterious protrusion that overlooks the atrium and leads to a space akin to a deep well. Children can experience this structure as though they were wandering through a forest of books.”

The environment has been masterminded to encourage a great sense of freedom and curiosity, and without the tapping of keyboards. Children are left to their own devices to explore and discover topics that they didn’t know they were interested in. By design, there is no counter to keep the children and librarians apart. “Children can ask our staff to read books to them any time, anywhere,” says library director Chiharu Maekawa. “Everyone is amazed with the building and the collection but there is a human element too. People need to connect children with books. We do just that.”

“Children can ask our staff to read books to them any time, anywhere. Everyone is amazed with the building and the collection but there is a human element too”

The collection was curated by book director Yoshitaka Haba of Bach and divided into 12 categories, including nature, design and stories about life and death. “Children don’t like to be treated like children,” says Haba. To this end, he added serious titles that adults can also appreciate, covering everything from Japanese cuisine to nuclear power plants and the arts. “You cannot just tell children to read,” he adds. “But they’ll get into it if they see that their parents are into it.” The trick appears to be working.

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Children are allowed to explore

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Artek N65 chairs were handpicked by Tadao Ando

The library is a testament to the future of publishing and an investment in the next generation. “Subscription services are seeing a big growth now, but it feels as though you can passively keep watching or listening to whatever is being fed to you endlessly,” says Haba. “What’s good about books is that you can pause, think and go back. Humans have proactive control of time [spent reading].”

Haba reflects with a smile on a project for which there was no previous example to draw on, but is confident that the team has delivered. “We want people from around the world to visit,” says Haba. “We believe that we have created something epoch-defining.” 
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