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Interview: Toyo Ito

This year’s Pritzker laureate reflects on his success, telling Claudia Hildner about his early life under Kikutake and why architects must now pull together

CH: As a young architect, what was the meaning of Metabolism for you?

TI: My graduation thesis explored the topic. The Metabolist movement was developing around the time I started studying at the University of Tokyo. Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa and other Metabolist architects were emerging with new projects. What they did was completely unheard of: projects for the city of the future. This was really amazing for me.

CH: Why did you turn away from Metabolism in the 1970s?

TI: When I was still studying, Kikutake was producing some really astonishing projects such as the Sky House, the administrative building for the Izumo-Taisha and his design for the International Conference Centre in Kyoto. I had an internship in Kikutake’s office for about a month. On the last day he said: ‘You can come back after your graduation.’

While I was working there, Metabolist ideas for the city of the future were becoming more concrete, notably with the 1970 Expo in Osaka. I worked on this project but I was also thinking: ‘That’s the city of the future? That can’t be true!’ It was like waking up from a dream. I was quite disillusioned. Another factor was the student protest movement that emerged in the late ’60s in both Europe and Japan. After that, the ‘now’ became more important − the Japan of the present. Those two influences might be the reason why I turned away from Metabolism. Back then, I was still in my 20s, but gradually I started to create my own designs.

Toyo Ito

Sketch of the Sendai Mediatheque scheme

CH: The residential house White U is described as the most important of your early works. What was your state of mind when you designed it?

TI: It can be read as a counter reaction to the tendencies of the 1960s. That’s something that is not only visible in my architecture, but also in the work of others, for example Tadao Ando and Itsuko Hasegawa. We turned our backs on the city and moved inwards. We weren’t very interested in external conditions; we wanted to realise our own utopias on a small scale. In this respect the White U is very pure architecture. Though it’s the sort of project that can only be realised at a young age.

CH: Compared with the works of Kazuyo Sejima or Tadao Ando, your architecture is different because it’s not defined by a signature style. Can you describe its evolution?

TI: The White U emerged at a time when my work cultivated little contact with society. This changed in the 1980s when I became more interested in the context of architecture, specifically the city of Tokyo. In 1988, I designed my first public sector project, a museum in Kumamoto. After that, I had the chance to realise more public buildings, and in 1995 I won the competition for the Mediatheque in Sendai. When the building was completed, I realised for the first time that the public really liked my concept. I felt that I had finally arrived and was no longer an outsider. My current work emerges from that spirit.

Toyo Ito

Ito’s Yatsushiro Municipal Museum, 1991

CH: You recently said you are no longer interested in transparency. Why?

TI: Transparency was important for me in the 1990s. Back then, Tokyo was struggling with the impact of the bubble economy. Tangible realities suddenly seemed to dissolve and that influenced my architecture. I didn’t want to design heavy and definitive buildings, but ones that somehow ‘lacked reality’. That’s where the notions of lightness and transparency came from.

CH: Despite the diversity of your work, is there a constant that underpins it?

TI: An observation by Kikutake is very important to me: ‘Columns set off space, floor defines space’. The Sendai Mediatheque illustrates how these ideas can be made visible in architecture. The facade resembles a section line, which extracts the structure from the continuum. The columns are like trees, which initiate space and emanate energy.

There is also a parallel between Kikutake’s observation and the ‘Onbashira’ − a festival celebrated in Nagano, where I grew up. There’s a shrine called Suwa Taisha, and around it are four wooden pillars that define the sacred space. The Onbashira is a celebration that takes place every six years when those pillars are renewed. The people of the village go to the mountains and chop down four huge trees with traditional tools. According to traditional Japanese beliefs, deities reside in those four trees and in the pillars. The trunks are renewed to preserve the energy that emanates from them.

Toyo Ito

Onbashira Festival at the Suwa Taisha shrine in Nagano, where Ito grew up – every six years new pillars are erected where deities are believed to reside

CH: So do Japanese traditions influence your work?

TI: I recall how Japanese people celebrated the cherry blossom season in former times. They went into a park, into nature, and separated a certain area underneath the trees with draperies. By doing nothing more than that, they created a special place. This way of thinking − that a simple drapery is enough to separate yourself from nature, is very Japanese and important in my work.

CH: Directly after the earthquake and tsunami catastrophe of 2011, you founded the initiative kishin no kai with some of Japan’s most well-known architects. Usually Japanese architects don’t work together that often, but do you now think that such collaborations must become more important in future?

TI: Something that concerns me more than that is the fact that many architects in my position do not consider themselves part of society. Instead, their work is often a criticism of it. The catastrophe in Tohoku presented an opportunity to overcome this attitude and to engage more directly with society.

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