Gentle Soul Belies a Revolutionary Spirit
Toyo Ito's unconventional designs continually challenge current norms
Issue: Oct 2011
Internationally acclaimed architect, Toyo Ito, is well known for his works that are characterised by flowing spaces
He exudes a quiet dignity and calmness which he later admits in this interview to be his approach to life. But beneath the cool exterior, a slight twinkle in his eyes hints at a man who is not afraid to laugh readily, challenge conventions and, move with the times. But this should come as no surprise. After all this gentle man is the internationally-acclaimed Japanese architect, Toyo Ito - a man who has a reputation of being one of the most innovative and influential architects in the world.
Within the Tama Art University Library (Hachioji campus) in Tokyo are characteristic arches made out of steel plates covered with concrete, where the intersections of the rows of arches help to articulate softly separated zones within the library.
Photo credit: Ishiguro Photographic Institute
Born in 1941, Toyo Ito graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1965 and established his own architectural firm in 1971. In the 70's, he sought to erase conventional meaning from his works through minimalist tactics and developed lightness in architecture that resembles air and wind. Since the completion of Sendai Mediatheque in 2001, he has been exploring architecture of the 21st century that goes beyond modernism's purity and machine analogy, transcending architecture through autopoietic processes and organic geometries into life-forms that reflect nature.
He has won several international awards and since 1998, has been accorded almost one award each year including the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement from the 8th International Architecture Exhibition "NEXT" at the Venice Biennale in 2002; the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, one of architecture's most prestigious prizes, in 2006; and Austria's Frederick Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts in 2008.
In his 40-year career, he has designed everything from homes like White U for his sister and his own home, Silver Hut, to hotels, cultural centres, malls, multi-purpose complexes, museums, stadiums and pavilions. Mr Ito also designs home accessories and interior fixtures.
INSIDE caught up with him recently when he was in Singapore for the unveiling of the design for Market Street office tower, which is located in the heart of Singapore's business district. The project, designed by Mr Ito, is a joint venture by CapitaLand, its subsidiary CapitaCommercial Trust (CCT) and Mitsubishi Estate Asia (MEA) to redevelop the island's first multi-storey car park in the business district, Market Street Car Park, into a revolutionary eco-friendly, Grade A 40-storey office tower. (Find out more at 'Tree of Life Springs Forth in Business District')
INSIDE: You have won several awards. Which award would you say you are most proud of and why?
ITO: The RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2006. At the award ceremony, the names of past award winners like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn were displayed. So I was very happy to be listed along with these [renown] names.
Sendai Mediatheque is constructed with steel tubular lattice structures that allows light to enter in the day and light from within to be seen outside at night so that it appears to glows from within
Photo credit: Miyagi Prefecture Sightseeing Section
INSIDE: Which of your works was the most challenging or satisfying and why?
ITO: The Sendai Mediatheque in Japan [a multi-purpose cultural centre completed in 2001 which contains a library, art gallery, audio-visual library, film studio and café]. It took a long time and was very difficult to build. The designing of Sendai Mediatheque was part of a competition. During the competition, there were [already] people who were against the idea of Sendai Mediatheque. Challenges were also faced during the construction. The tube structures used were the same as those used in ship building and they were difficult to make because [adapting] the construction technique [to buildings] was new at that time.
But once it was completed, the citizens of Sendai city took to it easily and started using it and enjoying the space. It makes me happy to see people from all walks of life, young and old using the building and being immersed in culture.
INSIDE: You have been designing for more than 30 years and have been called "one of the world's most influential and innovative architects”. How do you ensure that your designs are continually adding value and being innovative yet relevant?
ITO: The whole architectural process is not something I can do alone. It requires a good team - from the clients to engineers and staff. Good collaborative effort is important and key to renewing ideas. Team discussion is one of the ways in which I keep myself up-to-date [with current trends] and continually come up with more ideas. I am open [to suggestions] all the time and that's how I stay relevant.
Hotel Porta Fira in Barcelona, Spain, conceived as a distorted cylinder with red metal tubes on its exterior, is one of the tallest buildings in the city
INSIDE: Did your design style or philosophy evolve over the years?
ITO: Before Sendai Mediatheque, lightness and transparency were my main concerns [in design]. However, because of Sendai Mediatheque, I shifted my focus towards making my designs appeal to Man's natural desire for Nature and light.
INSIDE: You are world renown for many things: "conceptual architecture” where you reconcile the virtual and physical world, your treatment of opacity which has been called one of the hallmarks of your work, your incorporation of technology into your designs to convey the idea of "progress”. Which would you say is your value-add to the architectural world?
ITO: When people experience or use my building, I want them to feel relaxed and want to remain in the space. I want people to feel free within my buildings, not restricted. Architecture in the past was dictated by the authorities and it made people feel nervous or tensed [when they enter the building]. My buildings put people at ease.
The concept of modernism in which architecture is based on comes from the West. Buildings are designed in Asia [and for Asia] should be different from the West. In Europe and in America, buildings and residential areas where people live are separated. In Asia, the city hub and residential areas are closer together. The border is becoming more seamless and this is how I want to design buildings in Asia. That is something I want to keep striving towards.
INSIDE: Your office is known to be a training ground for young talents and you have developed your own private architecture school. Have you found it your vision or calling to mentor young architects?
ITO: I like to think of it as "thinking together” rather than teaching or mentoring. Young people today are more in touch with the present. Talking to them keeps me in touch with the current trends. Sometimes, though, some of these young ones [that have worked under me] get so good, they become my competitors [LAUGHS].
Toyo Ito fuses sharply-angled concrete elements and polygonal glass plates to simulate a network of concrete trees in TOD'S Omotesando Building in Tokyo, which was completed in 2004
Photo credit: Nacasa & Partners Inc.
INSIDE: More than designing buildings, you have also designed exhibitions both for your works and for museums. How did you get into this and how different (or similar) is it from your work as an architect?
ITO: The principles of installation come from architecture. I am interested in installations. It will be the conceptual model of architecture for the future. But exhibitions usually look at past works. I feel it's a waste of time. Exhibitions should look towards what we can do in the future that is different from what we have now. But to design one exhibition takes the same amount of energy I need to build one building [LAUGHS].
INSIDE: You designed VivoCity, the largest retail and lifestyle destination in Singapore at the time. How do you think it added value to the architectural landscape of the area in particular and Singapore in general?
ITO: In Singapore architecture, there are very clear boundaries between the outside and what's inside. I wanted to make the outside and the inside seamless, to blur the boundaries. For VivoCity, the hills and the water form a backdrop to the property so I created a low-rise building so that the surrounding landscape is not blocked but is, instead, incorporated into the design. People can go out and appreciate the natural beauty around. I also designed a water feature at the roof top. In the beginning, there were detractors who said that no one would use such a feature. But once it was finished, children and even adults loved the water feature. I think that's a value add.
(Anti-clockwise from top left): "Ripples" [the bench], KU dining range for Alessi and MAYUHANA lighting series are some of the home accessories that Ito has designed
Photo credit for light fixture: Yamagiwa
Photo credit for Ripples: Gianni Antoniali, Ikon (courtesy of HORM)
Photo credit for KU: Alessi
INSIDE: You design buildings to communicate with people, where there is no distinction between design and use. How much do you think architecture can influence society?
ITO: Architecture can help people get in touch with Nature. The environment is the concern of the new century. Through architecture, we can not only help people to get in touch with Nature but also incorporate energy-saving features.
INSIDE: You also design home accessories and fixtures. How did you get into that?
ITO: I was commissioned to do it [LAUGHS]. In Italy, architects design cars, furniture, and even cutlery. So, I was commissioned to design cups and saucers and from there, more and more commissions came in [LAUGHS]. But every time I design these home accessories and fixtures, I want to go back to architecture [LAUGHS].