After his triumph in Sendai, Toyo Ito charted a new course, which is now becoming visible
January 19, 2008
When he was working on the Sendai Mediatheque, Toyo Ito volunteered to me that afterward he might retire. It was a shocking thought. Ito turned 60 in 2001, the year his acclaimed multimedia library in Sendai opened.
In his case, 60 was not just the “new 40,” it was closer to 30.
But after completing the Mediatheque, a spectacular structure that architects will dissect for decades, he kept going. Instead of retiring, he plotted a change in his architectural agenda. When I next spoke with him about the broad direction of his career, he was designing a building for Tod’s Shoes on Omotesando Avenue in Tokyo [record, June 2005, page 78] and asking what was left to learn. He argued that the boulevard offered some of the best recent buildings—but also demonstrated that architects, given generous budgets, already knew how to make exquisitely ingenious jewel boxes.
Ito wanted something more. He did not exactly know where he was headed, but he knew he was lighting out in a new direction. Although he had collaborated with the talented structural engineer Masato Araya on the Tod’s building, he wanted to test his new design territory by collaborating with the more complex and contumacious Mutsuro Sasaki.
The quest Ito set out on after Sendai is now beginning to take shape. It has one simple rule: Eschew all the easy stuff. With buildings by most architects, you can assess the design by examining three of its major aspects: the appeal of its elevations and form, the organization of its plans and circulation, and the aesthetic effect of its materials and detailing. In most cases, once you understand these elements, you can quickly identify the architect behind them. The Tama Art University library is an extraordinary antithesis to this. The oddly syncopated arches of its elevation, if judged graphically, can only be called awkward. Its form is a simple, slightly distorted box, rendered so flat it is aphasically mute. Its plan tells us little about the building’s use or the circulation through it and is assertively empty, never privileging or pumping up the space within. Without too much effort, everything inside could probably be removed over a long weekend, and the building could quickly be converted into an art museum, a painting studio, a warehouse, or a dance club. The details—well, the ones most architects often employ to make a point, such as balustrades, door pulls, and light fixtures—are not inelegant, but demonstrate no effort at achieving a strong aesthetic impact. Until you experience this building, it is easy to dismiss it as unlikely to appeal.
Ito is hanging his hat instead on two often undervalued areas of architecture: structure and section. In his pre-Sendai work, he explored two other important ideas: oscillating between spatial fluidity on the one hand, and transparency, thinness, and lightness on the other. At the Tama library, neither of those earlier goals is lost, but they are no longer the decisive ones.
In the year after the Mediatheque, Ito produced two temporary projects that employed structural skins: the Serpentine Gallery in London (designed with Cecil Balmond of Arup) and a pavilion in Bruges, Belgium, both of which were elegant and immediately acclaimed. Although these short-lived structures were built in Europe, Ito lives in earthquake-prone Tokyo, where the importance of structure is extreme. Rather than fighting this beast, he faced it directly, making the pavilions’ skin also serve as their structure. His 2005 Mikimoto Ginza 2 building in Tokyo shares the same approach to structure and skin as his Tod’s building done slightly earlier, though Mikimoto is painted pink! There is a Modernist logic to all these buildings, paring down the parts and exaggerating the engineering. The two permanent structures, Tod’s and Mikimoto, required sealed envelopes, while the two pavilions needed only to be enclosed on some, but not all sides. On all four projects, Ito designed exteriors where figure and ground are at odds, a strategy that unintentionally drew most attention to the graphic success of their facades. On the Tama library, however, Ito asserts this is not the point, employing the lessons learned in these earlier structures to create both internal and external shear walls that are airy and open, but unbeautiful.
Other recent works, including Grin Grin Park in Fukuoka and the Kakamigahara Crematorium [record, March 2007, page 166] in Gifu address how section structures space. These projects follow a direction Ito first explored in the undulating slab of his 1998 Nagaoka Lyric Hall. Recent designs for exhibitions in Berlin and Tokyo offer a stripped-down exploration of section that concentrates only on altering one surface, the floor. For the Berlin exhibition, he transformed the floor of Mies’s New National Gallery into a rolling and slanting indoor landscape. At Tama, Ito investigates how this change plays out in a programmed space, introducing a pitch to the ground floor that is more subtle than the one he used in Berlin but underscored by the odd inclination of movable cases with deployable legs.
If earlier works are any indication, the Tama library is just one exploration of ideas that now engage Ito; chances are it won’t be the last. It presents an insightful opportunity to observe an unusually innovative and experienced architect exploring the implications of his abilities. Fittingly for a university, Ito engages the intellect. Experienced architects and engineers are most likely to fully appreciate this building. But the Tama library offers a luminous, unadorned aesthetic that should also appeal to and inspire the school’s students.