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Tuesday, 27 March 2007 06:25

Review: Toyo Ito | icon 043 | January 2007

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words Julian Worrall

A major new show of recent work by Japanese architect Toyo Ito (interview, icon 032) has opened at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.

Titled Toyo Ito: The New “Real” in Architecture, the show gathers work from the last five years into an exhilarating summation of the vigour of Ito’s investigations in space and structure.

During the heady days of techno-utopian consumerism at the end of the last century, Ito envisioned spaces for aloof urban nomads in virtual forests, yielding a diaphanous architecture of lightness and translucency – a direction that has been extended by Kazuyo Sejima and others, known in Japan as the “Ito school”. In this decade, however, Ito has increasingly engaged the structural and material powers of architecture – its forceful physicality. It is this shift that the “New ‘Real’” of the exhibition title refers to. The Sendai Mediatheque was the fulcrum of this rotation, and the eight projects on display are all post-Sendai, with the Tod’s Omotesando building, the Mikimoto store and the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion alongside fresh work such as the Crematorium in Kakamigahara and the Tama Art University New Library.

The star project is undoubtedly Ito’s winning scheme for the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House, Taiwan, to which an entire hall is devoted. An enormous model at 1:35 scale and weighing 100kg basks in attention. The scheme resembles a massively enlarged block of spongy bone marrow into which three large performance spaces are somewhat reluctantly inserted – a work of tremendous ambition, to be keenly watched.

Any exhibition of architecture must negotiate the gap between the scale and fixity of architecture’s built reality and its various forms of representation. In order to grasp the “real” of its title, the organisers have employed a battery of techniques. In addition to large-scale models, there are videos of construction work and digital fly-throughs, full-scale mock-ups of large chunks of facade and roof, undulating floors, and architectural drawings at 1:1 scale covering the 6m-high walls. This all comes together in the central exhibition room, a lively space experienced shoeless, in which built reality and the abstractions of architectural representation embrace the visitor.

In addition to its emphasis on the physicality of architecture, Ito’s advocacy of the “real” signals a new appreciation for the social effects of space. He has talked a lot recently about the importance of people enjoying themselves, even “having fun” via his architecture.

Although less accessible, it is Ito’s conceptualisation of his projects that gives enduring significance to the show – a framework he calls the “Emerging Grid”. Picking up language and ideas from scientific theories of emergence, Ito seeks to transcend the ubiquitous modernist grid through “complexity from simple rules, bottom-up and non-linear feedback processes, flexible adaptability, continuous variations, relative conditions, dynamic fluid processes, and interactive interdependence with nature”. Collaborations with cutting-edge structural engineers Cecil Balmond and Mutsuro Sasaki have been indispensable in this development.

Ito talks about “transcending” modernism, but his trajectory reveals a sustained commitment to architecture’s linking of space, science and society initiated by the modernists nearly a century ago. In my view, the alternative he seeks lies within modernism’s frame, not beyond it. This stance is concisely expressed in Ito’s comment on his exhibition design for the recent Berlin-Tokyo/Tokyo-Berlin show at Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin: “[I sought] not to destroy Mies’ space or oppose it, but … to shift it into a different orientation.”

The Tokyo exhibition gives a vivid insight into the powerful, generative possibilities and effects of Ito’s “alternative modernism”.

Toyo Ito: The New “Real” in Architecture is at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Tokyo, until 24 December, Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai, 13 April – 19 May, The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, 19 June – 2 September


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