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Toyo Ito | icon 032 | February 2006

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photo: Ryota Atarashi photo: Nacasa and Partners Inc photo: Raf Makda

words Marcus Fairs

I’ve returned to the real world, says Toyo Ito.

Or he might have said: “I can now look more towards the real world.”

Or perhaps: “I now focus more on the real world than the virtual world.”

It’s hard to tell, as each time I replay the tape, the interpreter suggests a different reading of his precise words. Once again, Tokyo has thrown up a moment that unavoidably brings to mind the filmic cliché that is “lost in translation”.

Ito’s office occupies a nondescript four-storey building clad in beige tiles on a side street midway between the chic Aoyama and frenetic Shibuya districts in Tokyo. We are ushered straight from the lift into the fourth-floor meeting room, which has white walls, white furniture and fluorescent strip lights. An assortment of white architectural models and awards – notably the Venice Architecture Biennale’s Golden Lion awarded to Ito in 2002 – are lined up on a shelf. A white porcelain espresso cup, with a tiny green frog instead of a handle, sits on the windowsill.

There’s a whole gang of us here: an interpreter, a local photographer and an interpreter for the photographer. Due to a miscommunication, a second photographer (along with his interpreter) showed up as well, and was sent away with sincere apologies.

Green tea is served and Ito arrives punctually, his serene smile tinged with curiosity and mischief. The previous two times I’ve met him he was wearing red socks with large lime-green spots on them, and T-shirts to match. “I’m sorry, I’m wearing normal black socks today!” says Ito in English, laughing and slurping nosily on his tea. At this point, an exchange in Japanese concludes that the photographer should return the following week, when Ito won’t be wearing a boring white shirt and tie. Ito would not like icon readers to think he was quite this conventional.

Ito’s English seems perfectly good yet his office has insisted I bring an interpreter with me. So we proceed with the bilingual interview, which seems to go well, and it is only when I get back to London that I realise I cannot hear a word the interpreter is saying on my recording. So I hire another interpreter to go through it again.

What finally comes through from the conversation is that Ito is confirming a major shift in his architectural thinking. Ito, who this month receives the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal in London, has abandoned the ephemeral, media-saturated architecture with which he made his name in favour of a more visceral, more overtly physical and more obviously beautiful type of building. “The Tarzan in the media forest has returned to the real forest!” he exclaims – or something along those lines – referring to the much-quoted metaphor he once used in an interview to explain how man – or Tarzan – evolved in the natural world but now inhabited an increasingly virtual world, and how his architecture attempted to reflect this duality.

Projects such as his 1986 Tower of the Winds in Yokohama – which appeared to be solid aluminium by day but which became luminously transparent by night, with a constantly changing play of lights responding to wind and sound – and his 2001 Sendai Mediatheque – with its all-glass walls and audacious, hollow columns of lattice steel inspired by seaweed – were simultaneously buildings and transmitters of information, thereby satisfying man’s physical and virtual needs.

“It’s been ten years since I mentioned [the Tarzan analogy] and Tokyo’s changed drastically since then,” Ito says. “Back in the so-called bubble era [of Japan’s economic miracle years] you had more virtual activity going on. But now it’s much quieter. Also, in the last ten years I’ve also had chances to work abroad, especially in Europe, and I’ve realised that my thinking in Tokyo was not correct. So my work has changed. It’s important for me to go beyond 20th-century architecture.”

Ito’s new architectural language is visible in recent projects such as his 2002 Serpentine Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, London, and a similar temporary structure completed in Bruges, Belgium, also in 2002 as part of that city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations.

Both strove to achieve the same thing: the unification of structure and surface pattern. The Serpentine Pavilion was essentially a simple box, yet the structural steel panels and glass infills are arranged in an apparently chaotic pattern reminiscent of Islamic geometries gone wrong.

In fact, the pattern was generated by drawing continuous lines onto the surface of the box and assigning the shapes created where they intersect to either steel (structure) or glass (window).

The Bruges pavilion was more refined, featuring an open-ended rectangle sitting over a pool of water and constructed from an aluminium honeycomb material strengthened in places with large plate-metal spots.

Ito’s flagship store for Italian luxury leather goods house Tod’s, which opened on Tokyo’s glamorous Omotesando boulevard at the end of last year, takes this approach a stage further. The seven-storey building has an external concrete structure that takes the form of a stylised row of overlapping, two-dimensional trees, with a series of “trunks” at ground level that split into a delicate canopy of branches towards the top of the building.

Tod’s is figurative rather than abstract, and the tree pattern echoes the famous zelkova trees that line Omotesando boulevard. “In the street where the Tod’s building is located, some very flashy buildings have been built,” Ito says. “I wanted to do something more raw, more powerful. I wanted to build a structure that didn’t differ from inside to outside. There’s no difference between outside and inside, front and back.
It’s an architecture of brute force – of “seimei ryoku” (life power) as Ito puts it. “It’s more simple and more natural [than the earlier projects]. If you relate it to human beings, you might dress yourself up, but in the end people with strong muscles have the power of life. This is what I wanted to say through architecture. It’s a power you need in order to survive Tokyo.”

Yet Tod’s is also a highly decorative addition to the streetscape – and, with its tree motif, one that is immediately legible. “Mies said less is more,” Ito says. “It’s still valid, but I believe the public are bored of it. They find it cold and think it’s no fun. You need to have more fun elements and show that architects can be positive and exciting. Architects must think more or else the general public will tend to shy away more and more. But with the Tod’s tree pattern, you can see it’s the silhouette of a line of trees. And that makes it easier for people to accept.”

This melding of boxy modernism with playful exterior treatments is a seam that Ito is now busily mining: the facade of his Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre is randomly incised by small, pebble-shaped apertures that evoke snowflakes, while his new store for cultivated pearl brand Mikimoto, which is about to open in Tokyo’s Ginza district, has a similar facade pattern evoking broken ice on the surface of water.

Ito, who is 64 but looks ten years younger, has a childlike sense of fun. The froggy cup and saucer on the windowsill were designed by Ito for Alessi as part of the Italian manufacturer’s Tea and Coffee Towers series. This saw leading architects reinvent the coffee set with predictably avant garde results, but Ito’s design is almost juvenile by comparison.

“In Japan, cups don’t have handles. So I put a frog where the handle should be. Of course you can’t have frogs in architectural designs. I am a serious person, ha ha! But I don’t think any architectural design should turn into furniture or homewares. I don’t approve of that.”

Ito, who was born of Japanese parents in Seoul, Korea, showed no particular interest in architecture during his childhood. “When I was a high school student I wanted to be a baseball player,” he says, reverting to English. Even when he was studying architecture at the University of Tokyo – he graduated in 1965 – he says he wasn’t so interested in the subject. It was only when he worked briefly for the Metabolist architect Kiyonori Kikutake that his real interest began. It inspired him to set up his own office, Urban Robot (URBOT) in 1971. This was renamed Toyo Ito & Associates in 1979.

Most of Ito’s work has been in Japan, but recently he has started winning commissions abroad, in no small part due to the success of his two temporary pavilions and the new-found legibility of his work. In 2003 he was appointed to design a department store for Selfridges in Glasgow – a project that was later shelved. He is now working on a hospital, the Hôpital Cognacq-Jay, in Paris, a major expansion of the Fira de Barcelona – the city’s exhibition centre – plus several other projects in Spain and another in Italy.

It is this contact with the more concrete tradition of European architecture that he says has influenced his recent work – most notably the Paris project, which involves the demolition of a 19th-century building occupying the site.

“There was a news article that came out condemning the destruction of the historical building,” says Ito. “We had the local residents come to a meeting for two or three hours and there was a big protest, because we were going to build a big glass building. However, critics came out and said this was a design worth building. You don’t get that kind of thing here. In Japan, there is no resistance to demolition.”

As a result, Tokyo is in a perpetual state of flux, with buildings constantly being ripped down and replaced. “Physically, compared to Europe, the buildings are more demolishable. But many clients say it’s actually cheaper to demolish and rebuild, so no-one thinks of renovating buildings. And most of the clients in Japan don’t have any professional understanding, so they let the architects do what they want.”

For the foreigner in Tokyo, the greatest surprise is that despite the familiarity of Japanese commerce and culture, the city itself is uncompromisingly alien. Ito is perhaps the first Japanese architect to attempt to reach a new architectural understanding between East and West that panders to neither but is comprehensible to both. “If a stranger comes to Tokyo they might find it very glamorous but they might not be able to survive,” he says, his words once again mangled by the interpreter into evocative semi-nonsense. “You need a certain power in order to survive Tokyo. That’s what I want to express with my buildings.”

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