Toyo Ito

In a rare interview, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect talks frankly to Kim Megson about his latest projects, his changing style and why he’s not looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics

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Late May, and the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale has just opened to the public. Inside the city’s ancient former armoury, perspiring visitors juggle fans, cameras and programmes as they crowd around the exhibits in their hundreds. Tucked away towards the end of the Corderie – the building once used to build mooring ropes for Venetian naval fleets – lies an intimate sanctuary from the chaos and the baking heat.

Hidden behind a mysterious curtain, abstract digital shapes ripple gently across a white fabric backdrop, accompanied by an ethereal soundtrack. In the centre of the space, people relax on bean bags in calm contemplation. Among them sits Toyo Ito, quietly assessing his creation for the first time (for this is his installation for the Biennale).

“Excuse me, are you Mr Ito?” The peaceful spell is broken, as the architect – sporting his distinctive white-framed glasses – is recognised by a fellow lounger. “Can I have a photo? You’re one of my heroes!” Ito politely acquiesces. Within a minute, a long line of admirers has formed.

The reverence on display is unsurprising, particularly from this Biennale crowd. Ito, in a career spanning over 40 years, has pushed the form in new directions with a lightness of touch and a lack of reliance on a signature style. His architectural trophy cabinet buckles under the weight of the honours bestowed on him: among them a Pritzker Prize, a Praemium Imperiale, and gold medals from the International Union of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Given all this, you might expect a certain degree of bravado. In fact, Ito keeps a relatively low profile, rarely conducting interviews. When he does speak publicly, he displays none of the bombast you might expect of someone credited by the Pritzker judges with “extending the possibilities of architecture.”

Take his statement upon being awarded the Pritzker, for example. He declared: “When one building is completed, I become painfully aware of my own inadequacy, and this turns into energy to challenge [me for] the next project. Probably this process must keep repeating itself in the future.

“Therefore, I will never fix my architectural style and never be satisfied with my works.”

While modest to the last, Ito does at least takes a more positive view of his output when we sit down for this interview at his hotel, a short water bus ride away from the hubbub of the Arsenale. He’s particularly excited to discuss one of his most recently-completed projects, the striking National Taichung Theatre in Taiwan.

This vast opera house is a remarkable piece of design and engineering. An incredibly complex, fluid structural system creates dramatically twisting and folding interior forms, designed, in a fashion, to resemble sense organs. This, says Ito, is a building with eyes, a mouth, a nose and ears. An enormous beamless ‘sound cave’ houses a 2,000-capacity Grand Theatre, a smaller Playhouse and an experimental Black Box venue. Visitors are led through a network of curving vertical and horizontal pathways – walls merging with the floors and ceiling – connecting the different facilities and linking a city garden at ground level to the rooftop. Outside, the building’s striking façade, partly created using a sprayable form of concrete, features cut-out sections that resemble enormous hourglasses.

Ito describes completion of the project, after 11 long years and many false starts, as “a miracle.”

“At times I thought this project would never happen,” he admits. “We had to stop for almost a year because there was nobody who could actually build it. The three dimensionality of the structure was very difficult to realise, even though the algorithms showed it could be done. Eventually, it was actually quite a small company from Taiwan that emerged with the capacity to realise our design.”

Abstract shape making is a hallmark of Ito’s work – from 2008’s hulking, canopy-like Za-Koenji Public Theatre in Tokyo to the recently-completed Museo Internacional del Barroco in Puebla, Mexico, with its elegantly fluted concrete walls that bend and fold like enormous sheets of paper.

While he still sketches all of his initial ideas by hand, these concepts are developed alongside the team in his studio using digital software (although Ito jokingly admits to being barely able to use a computer himself.)

The architect as negotiator
Public buildings have always appealed to Ito, and his office has worked on everything from parks and sculpture gardens to museums, stadiums and a Serpentine Pavilion.

Even when asked to design something as seemingly mundane as an exhaust air outlet for an underground shopping mall – as Ito was in the late 1980s – he sees the potential to create something with a public function. Tokyo’s Tower of Winds, completed in 1986, is a 21m-high cylindrical installation filled with 12 neon rings programmed to light up in the evenings. The fluorescent displays reflect the surrounding sound and wind levels.

Ito’s reputation as an architect of public buildings was truly established in 2001, however, when his ‘Mediatheque’ for the city of Sendai opened to the public.

Conceived as a cultural hub completely visible to the surrounding community, the transparent glass-fronted structure appears to float from the street. Clearly visible are its 13 vertical steel lattice columns, stretching from ground plane to the roof like enormous trees. Designed to bring vitality and joy to the interior spaces, they create a sculptural link between the floors, whilst doubling as light shafts and storage spaces for the building’s utilities. Inside, Ito chose largely to forgo walls, and visitors can roam openly across and between floors.

In the past, he has outlined his belief that when it comes to public projects, “an architect should be a negotiator”, responsible for encouraging dialogue and debate between those who will inhabit a building in order to arrive at the right design. This, he tells me, is becoming harder to do, because the people who pull the strings do not want to listen to different perspectives.

“There is a very common feeling among decision-makers in Japan that new ideas about public space are not needed, and that the types of public buildings we have already are enough,” Ito tells me.

“That is a big problem. Especially because the government has a totally different idea about what a public building should be than those who will, in fact, be using it.

“Officials tend to want to use design to control people in some way. But controlling people who want to enjoy space is not a positive vision for urban planning and design.”

Power, politics and placemaking
Ito is clearly not averse to criticising those in power. When I ask him to name the biggest challenge facing architects today, he solemnly replies: “Politics and money.”

He has been particularly critical of the Japanese government’s preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games; a saga that’s been blighted by escalating costs and bitter rows over the design of its key venues.

When the Japan Sports Council announced in 2013 that Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) would be designing a new National Stadium for the Olympics, Ito, along with architects such as Fumihiko Maki, Sou Fujimoto and Kengo Kuma, petitioned against the decision due to its vast scale, which they claimed was unsuitable for the leafy, largely residential location by Yoyogi Park. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe eventually scrapped the project in 2015, claiming the cost had “ballooned too much” after almost doubling to US$2bn (€1.79bn, £1.52bn). Ito then went head to head with Kuma in a new competition for the project, which he ultimately lost.

“The final contest was very, very political,” he says. “It was the same with the competitions for many of the other Olympic facilities. Most of the architects who entered didn’t know what was going on. The very big architecture firms used their influence and the projects were decided by politics. It was not a transparent process. I am not at all excited by these Games.”

Ito – who previously designed the Main Stadium for the World Games in Taiwan in 2009 using entirely re-useable materials – hasn’t given up hope of his Olympic stadium emerging somewhere, in some form, at some time in the future.

Despite being based in Tokyo, these days he prefers to work elsewhere. “The city has become so embedded in the global economy that working there has become a very big money game,” he says. “I find myself more at home working on the smaller islands of Japan.”

He has particularly devoted himself to the Home-for-All project; collaborating with a number of other architects to design communal pavilion spaces for survivors of the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. His pavilion on the project at the Venice Biennale in 2012 won him the festival’s Golden Lion award.

He has also been busy working on several small projects on the island of Omishima, including a cliffside museum that bears his name. The boat-like black steel building, opened in 2011, showcases diagrams, models and images of his work. A nearby structure called ‘Silver Hut’ – a recreation of Ito’s former 1980s Tokyo home – is used as a workshop for aspiring architects.

“In the beginning, this was not my museum,” he explains, “but during construction we talked about how the space could be used to teach people more about architecture, and the client said, ‘I don’t need this to be my museum, it should be yours.’”

Not many living architects can boast their own dedicated museum, but Ito downplays his own influence, particularly on today’s generation of designers.

This, despite the fact that luminaries including Kazuyo Sejima and Akihisa Hirata have worked for him at one time or another (a relationship celebrated by the New York Museum of Modern Art’s acclaimed 2016 exhibition ‘A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond’).

“I don’t see myself as a mentor, or even a teacher,” Ito insists. “I’m more interested in collaborating than teaching. I love to work alongside young architects so we can think about a project and the problems that need to be solved. Realising a building can be very hard, so in my studio we all share that hardship together.”

With impeccable timing, Ito’s phone rings. It’s Kazuyo Sejima, who is also in Venice attending the Biennale and wants to see him. After the call, he admits he is “very happy and proud that so many architects brought up in my studio have been so successful.” A smile and a pause. “Even if I sometimes lose competitions to them.”

Architecture equals nature
I ask whether his approach to architecture has changed much since he designed his first building – the famous, now demolished, White U house – in 1976.

“The biggest change in my philosophy has been my understanding of nature,” he replies. “In the beginning, this was not strong. Over the years, and as I have gained more experience, this has changed. It is now very important in my work.

“In the 20th century, the concept of controlling nature through technology rapidly emerged. Japan followed Europe in this direction. In contemporary Tokyo there are more and more skyscrapers. There’s a big discrepancy between architecture and nature. I want this gap to narrow, because we shouldn’t be isolated from the environment. People are more at ease in nature than a building. Architecture should reflect this, whether it is through creating natural shapes, forms, materials or spatial systems.

“When I start a project now, I may dream of a forest clearing, a silent pool of water or a flowing river,” he continues. “This inspires me to design an image, and from there I work out the best way to realise this vision.”

Subtle natural references can be found throughout his work. Take the Matsumoto Performing Arts Center, completed four years after the forest-like Sendai Mediatheque.

Ito’s biomorphic design features gently curving walls punctuated by randomly placed holes. When daylight enters, it forms patterns on the floor like sunshine through a woodland clearing, or reflections on a sea bed.

Meanwhile, his recent ‘Minna no Mori’ Gifu Media Cosmos – a vast library and cultural facility in the Japanese city of Gifu – boasts 11 giant globes suspended from the roof. These define the building’s different zones for reading, resting and study, but also enhance air flow and allow filtered natural light to enter. “I thought about how one of the library’s users might feel if they were sat beneath a tree canopy, reading a book, enjoying a cool breeze,” says Ito. “I have one dream with my work. Architecture should equal nature.”

Next up for Ito are a range of projects which include a business school for the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, which is set to become the largest wooden building in Asia when it is completed in 2021.

At the other end of the scale, Ito hopes to return to Omishima.

“Over the next few years, I’d like to live half my life over on the island,” he says. “I like to drink sake, and I’ve built a very small winery there. Last autumn we produced our first wine and this year maybe there will be 1,000 bottles. One day I would like to design a hotel where guests can relax and enjoy the wine.”

Surely we couldn’t be about to lose one of our most well-regarded architects to the world of hospitality? Ito laughs, and shakes his head firmly. “No, no. I have no plans to retire. There is still much for me to do.”

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Interview: Toyo Ito
@PritzkerPrize winning architect Toyo Ito speaks out in a rare interview about politics, inspiration and why he's not looking forward to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics