Usagi, a self-described cultural hub for creatives, attracted my attention with its understated hues, natural materials, and clean lines. I was feeling withdrawn from the plethora of cultural venues after my year in Taiwan. When Usagi appeared as the first result of a quick Google search for "bookstore cafés Brooklyn," I was ecstatic.
My first impressions of Usagi are based on my five senses. The woody aroma of matcha tea, the subdued jazz hop boppin' in the background, and the varying lighting tints all captivate my attention. I take a closer look around and note that the room is clearly split into three sections, as mentioned on Usagi's website: the café, the bookstore, and the art gallery. Each room appeared to have been designed with a specific purpose in mind.
At the kotatsu in the café, I overhear a couple on their first date. The warm lighting creates a welcoming environment. They shift their gaze to their surroundings—a Noguchi chair, an architectural wire sculpture, and PHAIDON coffee table books on Japanese design. This area reminded me of the kissatens I frequented in Taiwan and Japan, except that the furniture builds were way more abstracted. The lighting transitions fluidly to the art gallery, which is wide, airy, and cooler in hue than the café space.
In the gallery, negative space surrounds a maze of mobile walls, mounted under barely noticeable tracks. I later learn that the interior is designed by Sou Fujimoto, one of my favorite Japanese architects. Openness, flexibility, transparency, and coexistence of variety and simplicity, the design principles Fujimoto is famed for are exemplified through his use of adaptable track-mounted panels, allowing for an infinite number of ways to frame and position the artwork. The shōji-inspired panel layout aims to strike a balance between simplicity and variety, function and beauty, qualities that appear to be diametrically opposed but coexist like yin and yang.
In an interview, he claims ‘My projects are about nature and architecture,’ he says, simply. ‘A place for humans, integrating various scales from small to large, and the coexistence of simplicity and variety.’
The gallery's topology successfully creates an atmosphere akin to wandering through a garden of art, the display becoming a work of art and theatricality in and of itself.
The bookstore, which houses an anthology of books on art, design, philosophy, poetry, and architecture, completes the layout. Both variety and simplicity are reflected in the way the books are displayed against the wall—some lay flat, others lean on each other, and some face forward. Several wheeled bookshelves surround the wall, reinforcing Fujimoto's design ideals of variety and simplicity once again.
Fujimoto's principle of adaptability is based on traditional Japanese homes, which have one floor for all human activities (sleeping, eating, speaking, and sitting). Due to Japan's dramatically fluctuating climate, which ranges from high humidity in the summer to snow in the winter, as well as the natural disasters that strike the island, such as typhoons and volcanic activity, rooms must be constructed to accommodate these changes. It's no surprise that adaptability was a key consideration in the design of this space, given New Yorks' similarly ever-changing seasons and local creatives' ever-changing needs.
Usagi, which means "spring" or "renewal" in Japanese, is undoubtedly a third space for flourishing ideation and collaboration, rather than for independent, focused work. Because it is a large open space, there aren't enough wall entities to absorb the acoustics; loud noises reverberate through the space. But as a space for creative exploration, it not only matches Professor Ray Oldenburg's definition of a third place precisely—not isolated first (home) or second (work) places—but it also is literally divided into three different functions. Because of the versatility of this mixed use hub, I could picture myself making several trips on any given day—in the morning to grab a cup of matcha latte in the café, during the day to collaborate on projects with my friends, and at night to wander around the art gallery.
The Third Space Rating
Total rating: 25/30