Finally, a place in the sun

Finally, a place in the sun


After nearly four decades of work, Toyo Ito has earned a cult following among architects around the world, although he is little known outside his home country, Japan. Through his strange and ethereal buildings, which range from modest houses for the urban recluse to a library whose arched forms have the delicacy of paper cutouts, he has created a body of work almost unmatched in its diverse originality.

Over the past decade, as the popularity of architecture has boomed and many of his contemporaries have jetted around the globe piling up one commission after another, Ito has largely remained on the sidelines. He is rarely mentioned in conversations about semicelebrities like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid or Jacques Herzog. He has repeatedly been passed over for the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honour, in favour of designers with much thinner résumés. Even in his native country he is overshadowed by Tadao Ando, whose brooding concrete structures have become a cliché of contemporary Japanese architecture.

Ito’s status may finally be about to change. On Thursday, a stadium he designed for the World Games was unveiled to a global audience in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Its pythonlike form should produce as much a stir, at least within architectural circles, as did the Bird’s Nest stadium by Herzog and Pierre de Meuron when it was unveiled a year ago at the Beijing Olympics.

Even more ambitious are his plans for the Taichung opera house, which is scheduled to go into construction sometime next year. A work of striking inventiveness, it has already been touted as a masterpiece. Its porous exterior, which resembles a gigantic sponge, is as wildly imaginative in its way as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. Its design was a large reason Ito was recently awarded his first American commission, the Berkeley Art Museum in California.

Not by popular choice

But even if Ito begins to land the big, lucrative commissions that he so obviously deserves, he may never be completely accepted by a broad popular audience. He does not have the intimidating, larger-than-life persona of a Koolhaas. Nor is he a flamboyant presence like Hadid, who is often compared to an opera diva because of her striking looks and imperial air.

Ito, by comparison, can be unassuming. A small, compact man with a round face framed by rectangular glasses and dark bangs, he is easygoing and rarely flustered. And he has the rare ability to consider his projects with a critical eye, even going so far as to point out flaws that a visitor might have overlooked.

What’s more, his work can be maddeningly difficult to categorise. No two Ito buildings look exactly alike. There is no unifying aesthetic style, no manifesto to advance. You can never be sure what Ito will do next, which can be thrilling for architects but nerve-racking for clients (another reason, perhaps, that his work isn’t better known).

What his buildings do share is a distrust of simplistic formulas. His career can be read as a lifelong quest to find the precise balance between seemingly opposing values — individual and community, machine and nature, male and female, utopian fantasies and hard realities.

His ability to find such balances consistently has made him one of our great urban poets, someone who has been able to crystallize, through architecture, the tensions that lie buried in the heart of contemporary society. It makes his work especially resonant today, when much of the world is drawn to one form of extremism or another.

Ito, who was born in 1941, began his career at a pivotal time in Japanese architecture. As a student in the 1960s he followed Modernists like Kenzo Tange as they rebuilt the country’s cultural confidence after the devastation of World War II. His first job was in the office of Kiyonori Kikutake, a founder of the Metabolist movement, which envisioned gigantic flexible structures that could adapt to a society in constant flux. It established Kikutake and his cohorts as prominent figures of the international avant-garde.

But that decade of cultural optimism was short lived. By the 1970, Osaka Expo, which served as a showcase for the country’s top architectural talents, Metabolism had been practically reduced to a fad, its social agenda stripped of its original meaning.
“All the big concepts were drained of idealism,” Ito told me as we rode a bullet train through the Japanese countryside on the way to visit one of his buildings. “It was very disappointing for the young generation. It became very hard to have any outward hope about the future.”

This crisis of faith — the sudden awareness of the powerlessness of architects, if not of architecture — was soon followed by a prolonged economic recession, which meant that the kinds of large-scale public commissions available to many postwar architects were gone.

Nurturing souls

Looking for a way forward Ito was drawn to the work of Kazuo Shinohara, a vocal critic of the Metabolists who believed that if architecture could change the world at all, it would do so not by promoting radical social visions but by creating small, modest spaces to nurture and protect the individual spirit. His houses, mostly build it in the 1960s and 1970s, were conceived as private utopias, with delicate interiors supported by muscular concrete pillars that seemed designed to resist the outside pressures of a corrupting society.

Ito took this idea to its extreme in 1976 with the White U house, which was organized around a central court and completely shut off from the outside world. Designed for his younger sister, whose husband had died of cancer, its seamless white interiors were meant to create an intensely private, therapeutic environment, a place where she could recover from her grief. Only the tops of a few surrounding buildings and utility poles were visible from inside, a gentle reminder that life continued beyond its walls.

But eventually this vision seemed as limiting as the Metabolist’s vision seemed naïve, and Ito would locate his architecture in the space between two extremes: The social idealism of late Modernism and the inwardness of Shinohara’s work.

His breakthrough came with the Sendai Mediatheque, a library and exhibition space completed in 2001. Seen from a distance the structure looks like a conventional Modernist glass box rising from one of Sendai’s busy, tree-lined boulevards. The first hint of something out of the ordinary is a series of enormous white latticework tubes that pierce the top of the structure, capped by a delicate steel frame. The tubes seem to be arranged in a loose, almost random pattern, and as you get closer, you realise they extend down through the entire structure, connecting the floors. They not only hold up the building, they house elevators, staircases and mechanical systems. Sunlight, reflected from gigantic, computer-controlled mirrors, spills through them during the day, giving the building an ethereal glow.

“The tubes are often compared to trees in a forest,” Ito told me through a translator as we toured the building. “But they are also like objects in a Japanese garden, where space is created by movement around carefully arranged points, like ponds or stones.”
The idea was to free us, both physically and psychologically, from the rigidity of the grid and what it implies — the Cartesian logic, the erasure of individual identity. But the building is not just an isolated experiment. By echoing the forms of the conventional slab buildings around it and aggressively distorting them, the design suggests how the city too could be made more free and more human.

This vision takes on even greater complexity in the Tama Art University Library, completed just over two years ago, west of Tokyo. Set at the edge of a dreary hillside campus, the structure was conceived as an irregular grid of delicate concrete arches.
When I first saw it, it brought to mind the work of Louis Kahn, who — in an effort to root modern architecture in an ancient past — used classical references to imbue glass, concrete and steel with an aura of historical monumentality. But Ito’s design turns this idea on its head. The arches that line the library’s exterior vary in width from 6 feet to nearly 50 feet, giving them an offhand, whimsical quality. Windows are set flush to the arches’ concrete surfaces so that the facades have a taut appearance, as if the building had been sealed in shrink wrap.

Since the library’s completion his ambitions have led to a startling range of new designs. The concave roof segments of his recently opened Za-Koenji Public Theater in Tokyo, for instance, are vaguely reminiscent of Shinohara’s House Under High-Voltage Lines (1981). But Ito’s structure is more animated, reflecting the energy of its bustling working-class site.

The design for the 44,000-seat Kaohsiung stadium, by contrast, seems to be as much about the anxieties of a mass event as about a shared emotional experience. While traditional stadiums are designed to shut out the outside world, Ito’s stadium seeks to maximise our awareness of it while still creating a sense of enclosure.

From the main entry the stadium looks like a gigantic snake that is just beginning to coil around its prey. Its tail extends to one side, framing a large entry plaza. At times when the stadium is less full, people will be able to stroll through the gates from the plaza and sit on a patch of grass at the edge of the field, eroding the boundary between inside and out.
Inside, the intertwining pipes of the canopy curl down and around the stands, enveloping the audience. And while the immediate surroundings are shut out, most seats have a distant view of downtown. The result is remarkable: A space that manages to maintain the intensity and focus of a grand stadium without that intensity becoming oppressive.
Yet it is in his design for the Taichung opera house, scheduled to go into construction sometime next year, that Ito comes closest to an ideal he has been chasing for decades: A building that seems to have been frozen in a state of metamorphosis. Set in a landscaped park, the opera house is conceived as a flexible network of interconnected vessels that has been sliced off on four sides to form a rectangular box.

Fluid space

The amorphous forms are not random; their seemingly elastic surfaces grow and shrink according to the functions they house, which include restaurants, foyers, a roof garden and three concert halls that will seat from 200 and 2,000 people. Visitors will find themselves slipping between some of these forms and entering others. The sense of inside and out, of stillness and motion, becomes a complex, carefully composed dance.
It is a striking vision, as beautiful as anything built in the past decade. And it sums up Ito’s philosophy about both architecture and life, about the need to accommodate the many contradictions that make us human.

It also suggests a way architecture can move forward.

At the beginning of this century the field seemed to have entered a new age of freedom and experimentation. But like everything else, that spirit was quickly subsumed by the competitive greed of the global economy: the money, the real estate speculation, the frantic rush for consumer attention. Designs that were born of joy and exuberance, like Gehry’s Guggenheim, were treated as marketable commodities, which became a kind of trap.

Seen in that light, the inaccessibility of Ito’s architecture is a virtue. Hard to pin down, it is also difficult to brand. By embracing ambiguity, his work forces us to look at the world through a wider lens. It asks us to choose the slowly unfolding narrative over the instant fix.

“I sometimes feel that we are losing an intuitive sense of our own bodies,” Ito lamented at one point during my visit. “Children don’t run around outside as much as they did. They sit in front of computer games. Some architects have been trying to find a language for this new generation, with very minimalist spaces. I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body.”

“The in between,” he added, “is more interesting to me.”

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