:: Article

The Many Self-Reinventions of Toyo Ito

By William Harris.

Gifu Media Cosmos - Photograph by Iwan Baan

Gifu Media Cosmos – Toyo Ito. Photograph © Iwan Baan

Toyo Ito’s first building was a house in Tokyo that he designed for his sister. Her husband had just died. From above, the house looked like a fortress, its blankness refusing the city, the public, history, even comfort or the likelihood of sunlit sanity. Yet it was placed in the banal middle of a residential neighborhood, not far from Shinjuku: a reclusive, almost windowless U-shaped slab of concrete swallowing an austere courtyard and surrounded by a cluster of vernacular roofs, skyscrapers towering in the distance. At one end of the house was the sister’s room, at the other her daughter’s; the curving corridor in between was all white, without much furniture or decoration, and lit hauntingly and theatrically from below by footlights.

The house’s symbolism—the introverted home of a mourner, shutting herself in from the city—took on wider allegorical dimensions as Ito’s reputation grew. The house, White U, was built in 1976; a decade earlier Ito finished university and started working for Kiyonori Kikutake, prominent member of Metabolism, the Japanese postwar modernist architecture group known for its ambitious, often utopian megastructures. The Metabolists responded to the period’s urban growth by designing brutalist buildings with repeating modular parts, their vision fixating on the city’s intensification, and it was from out of this shadow that Ito emerged, his first building signaling an era’s end, more funeral than debut. White U closed the chapter on the techno-optimism of the late industrial age, but it remained too ruminative and senescent to gesture in a new direction: a pure, private project that withdrew into itself and turned its back to the city. After twenty years Ito’s sister decided to return to the world: White U was demolished in 1997.

Much changed for Ito during those twenty years. In 1995 he unveiled the plans for his most famous building, Sendai Mediatheque, finished in 2001 and recently presiding as the centerpiece of a group show at MoMA, A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond, which took up this past summer’s slot in the museum’s architecture galleries. After White U, Ito began opening back up to society and the city, but on his own terms, or rather history’s. Modernist architecture, with its shibboleths of function, grids, and transparent rationality, had begun to appear hopelessly out of date. Its planned programs and immediate material presence—sublime blocks of concrete hoisted in the air, as with Kikutake’s “Sky House” (1958)—smacked in turn of the welfare state and industrial production, two faltering historical remnants. In its place, and after White U, Ito struck on a new direction. “We have no choice,” he notoriously wrote in 1989, “but to stand before the sea of consumption, immerse ourselves, and swim through it to discover what lies on the far shore.”

National Taiwan University Library - Photograph by Iwan Baan

National Taiwan University Library – Toyo Ito. Photograph © Iwan Baan

His declaration didn’t seem especially new, at least in a global context. As early as 1972 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown had deemed billboards “almost all right,” splashing into the sea with their postmodern manifesto Learning from Las Vegas. It didn’t take long to find out what the far shore looked like: studded with Frank Gehry’s swirling, neo-Baroque tin-man festoons, Norman Foster’s glassy corporate shapeliness, and Renzo Piano’s feats of lightness, floating along at the increasingly detached heights of finance capital. And yet the exceptionalism of the Japanese context prepared a different architectural ground. Throughout much of the world, countries liberated markets and accepted structural adjustment packages, but at the state level Japan resisted the pressures of neoliberalism, its economy characterised by extensive government intervention both in its rich years, from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War, and in its so-called Lost Decade, the long spell of stagnation following the country’s 1991 housing bubble implosion. The state continued its interventions but the economy turned increasingly postindustrial, and this combination of statist persistence and a precarious, media-saturated information economy set the parameters for much of Ito’s work, his visions strung along a dialectic between public performance and the demands of a flexible postindustrial moment.

But first he went pop. Japan’s bubble economy had reached a zenith and everything seemed glossed with impermanence, a junkspace of luxury projects cycled through one after the other. Ito took up the challenge of the times with a glinting production of ephemerality, Restaurant Bar “Nomad” (1986), a theatrical pop-up bar in Tokyo with warped aluminum sheets floating overhead, giving off the feel of a chic urban tent. As with much pop art, “Nomad” made it difficult to distinguish between infatuation and critical parody, a tension exaggerated—and perhaps clarified—in an earlier project. 1985’s Dwelling for the Tokyo Nomad Woman, a thin structure, part chair and part tent, was meant to be carried around as you drifted through the city on shopping jaunts, drinking here, browsing there, finally pulling the dwelling around yourself to rest or sip tea. It was a house for a bubble economy in which the city was both dissolving and pressurising, and more and more of life was spent out, flashily consuming. The Metabolists had planned for the industrial-scale expansion of the city, and Ito had struck that era’s death knell by turning inward. But with the Nomad structures he was opening back up: the new emphases, in keeping with the economic climate, were transience, consumption, and lightness, all employed with an air of fictional satire.

In the 1990s the consumerist provocations slackened, as Ito tried a more sober hand at public buildings. The two sides of his early-ish architecture—postindustrial impermanence and public engagement—met most definitively, however, after the turn of the millennium in Sendai Mediatheque. For MoMA’s curators the building seems to be the launch of a new paradigm, the founding instance of what would grow into an architectural constellation. The Mediatheque is a transparent library with free-plan floors that open out to the city. It appears to have been turned inside out, with seaweed-like tubes dispersed through its wall-less interior, a confusion of inside and outside that intuits how media saturation, rather than emptying out city life as some predicted, has instead brought about a delirious type of urban congestion: a precarious flexibility, or a flexible precarity.

Ito’s design pointed ahead in two ways. On the one hand it realised the modernist principle of transparency, exposing certain structural elements, but it did so with a hint of contradiction, by advertising its content like a boutique window: the inside was brought out into the city, but it was also encased as a display, with a glassy façade that looks like one of Jeff Koon’s readymade vacuum cleaner installations. A kind of high street modernism, it disrupted the canon in a second way by estranging the controlled, homogenous rationality of the grid. The seaweed tubes are spaced out randomly, twisting playfully as they stretch upward, subtly dividing the floors while keeping movement free and unpredictable—a library, an art gallery and a media centre all flow into one another, without the sense of hierarchy or order. The building’s wall-less, anti-programmatic freedom produced a set of now all too familiar buzzwords: “undetermined,” “participatory,” “flexible,” “spontaneous.” Here was the beginning of MoMA’s Japanese constellation, or, as the exhibition had it, “Architecture for the 21st Century”: an organic form, anti-grid architecture that progresses on from modernist design and slips lightly between inside and outside, anticipating the language of Silicon Valley in a way that makes one wonder if it isn’t too 21st-century for its own good.

Tama Art University Library - Photograph by Iwan Baan

Tama Art University Library – Toyo Ito. Photograph © Iwan Baan

The constellation begins with Ito, but SANAA, a partnership between Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, shares top billing. Just as Ito began his career working for Kikutake, Sejima began hers working for Ito, and beyond orbits a triplicate of younger architects—Akihisa Hirata, Junya Ishigami and Sou Fujimoto—who got their start similarly: Hirata with Ito, Ishigami with SANAA. This is one way to understand what’s meant by a constellation: an enmeshed system of apprenticeship, positioned against the individualist reputation of architecture’s celebrity “starchitect” class. The constellation passes ideas down generationally, resulting in an architecture that sharpened and extended Ito’s challenge to modernism.

Modernism, despite appearing so dormant and outmoded in Ito’s early career, has nevertheless continued to haunt contemporary design. It’s clear it was a movement with flaws: ambivalent politics, a frequent disregard for context and environment, a tendency, with its International Style, toward placeless uniformity. But it’s equally clear that the post- and neo- movements that followed have run their course, replacing buildings structured by need, function and structural principle with ones driven by desire and whimsy. As a result, modernism has returned in a spectral way, both as a model for serious debate and as an item of museum nostalgia, apparent in today’s art world, where references to modernist architects (Le Corbusier, Luis Barragan, Oscar Niemeyer) proliferate with a curious cache. Much of the Japanese constellation’s appeal lies in its paradoxical embrace and rejection of modernism, how it appears to gesture at a new way out from the movement’s shadow that at its best works with modernism instead of simply overthrowing it. The line stretching from Kikutake, after all, is direct.

The buildings that best exemplify the constellation’s challenge to modernism branch off from the ideas in Ito’s Mediatheque, revealing their historical engagement through openness and transparent lightness. Their openness can be thrilling, joining together modernist clarity and simplicity with a new conception of free, unstructured movement, a notion exploited in recent corporate office design that nevertheless takes on a different valence when applied, as it often is with Ito’s and SANAA’s designs, to public buildings, so that real pleasure can be taken from walking unhurried and unconstrained through the libraries, galleries, and children’s play areas of Ito’s Gifu Media Cosmos (2015) or SANAA’s EPFL Learning Centre (2010). Lightness, too, flaunted across much of contemporary architecture as an ideological fantasy—the dematerialising of the built world, to match the dematerialising of the postindustrial economy—comes off differently in Ito’s and SANAA’s architecture, its subdued transparency a contextual move to blend and bridge interiors and exteriors, as with SANAA’s Glass Pavilion at Toledo’s Museum of Art (2006), or their more recent Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut (2015). The immediate effect is an architecture that opens itself to nature, frustrating divisions between buildings and landscape, much as modernist design did between buildings and cities.

21st Century Museum - Photograph by Iwan Baan

21st Century Museum – SANAA. Photograph © Iwan Baan

But the constellation’s embrace of the natural and “organic”—a new architectural buzzword—has not always seemed so progressive. Many have called postmodern architecture arbitrary: fanciful designs, most notoriously Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, that rely on computer technology instead of planned structural rules for their realisation, so that exterior shapes and skins trump interior programs. What’s inside becomes obfuscated by what’s outside. Sometimes, in their transparent bridging of interior and exterior, the Japanese constellation, and especially SANAA, have acted as welcome tonics to this championing of mystification. But elsewhere they have countered the accusation of arbitrariness by replacing architectural with “organic” logic, their buildings transcending the arbitrary by aligning themselves with the fluid swoops, organ tubes and DNA spirals of the natural world, quoting nature as formal image. It’s a strategy at pains to demonstrate its deformed logic, and one that on occasion—Ito’s cavernous Taichung Opera House (2016) is an example—risks tipping over into the type of disorientation postmodernism design revelled in.

As an image-making effect these natural quotations alternate between spectacular and banal, sometimes achieving both. Ito’s TOD’s Omotesando Building (2004), a store in a modish part of Tokyo for the luxury Italian shoe brand, employed solutions learned from virtuoso structural engineer Cecil Balmond, famous for shiny, illusionary architecture and collaborations with Anish Kapoor and Rem Koolhaas, to arrive at an absurdly boring design. The fanning of the zelkova trees in front of the store mirrors the concrete tree-like ornamentation embellishing the building’s façade, doubling, in a patent Balmond move, decoration as structural feature. Ito himself has sounded embarrassed by the building:

Perhaps the thinking is that the design … will itself establish the cultural worth of the brands. In any case, we had little experience in this field and many reservations about how to communicate with clients so very unlike public authorities. … Where previously we had always pursued social values in architecture, in the world of fashion, cultural worth, indeed everything, comes down to economic value.

And yet similar effects show up elsewhere in Ito’s work, public and commercial: roofs, for instance, whose curves ape the surrounding hills. It’s engineering that trades in the sublime for picture-making, and it’s an architectural tendency that casts doubt on MoMA’s positioning of the constellation. Exhibitions are always also arguments; how far can this one’s stretch? The architects of the Japanese constellation have been known to produce elegant, innovative, even structurally fascinating work, quietly and daringly advancing the modernist line. At the same time, their buildings can seem like just another variation on postmodern’s failings, by turns disorienting and picturesque. They don’t represent a new iteration of the avant-garde, and the exhibit didn’t exactly pretend they do. But are they really leaders in a new 21st-century architecture, one attuned to nature and social value, in any sustained and singular way?

Perhaps in one way. In 2011 the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history struck the country’s northeast coast, prompting a slew of tsunami waves to lash through surrounding towns. 127,000 buildings were destroyed and nearly a million seriously damaged; over 200,000 people were displaced. A small group of Tokyo-based architects, including Ito, Sejima, Hirata, and Fujimoto, met at Ito’s studio and devised a disaster relief plan called Home-for-All, in which they built simple home-like structures in areas of temporary housing. The point wasn’t to house people, which was already being done, but to provide them with public space for community meetings, social events, sites for entertainment and play. One architect spearheaded each town’s structure, working with the community to achieve a democratic realisation of the community’s needs.

Home for All - Photograph by Iwan Baan

Home For All – Toyo Ito. Photograph © Iwan Baan

It was a long way from Ito’s start, when he turned away from his mentor’s modernism to produce designs characterised by an almost asocial privacy and imagination, and in the earthquake’s aftermath Ito underwent something of a transformation, becoming suspicious of lightness and showiness and stressing instead social application and enjoyment. His talk of social function now conjures up shades of modernism, but it’s still modernism that his projects are pitched against; in place of the top-down bureaucratic style of the postwar era, he now puts forward a localised democratic process of building by communal consensus, a participatory emphasis that has become something of a trend in art and architecture.

Such crisis-responsive, participatory practices figured as a presiding theme in this year’s Venice Biennale. The Biennale’s curator, Alejandro Aravena, also the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, architecture’s top honor, rose to prominence by salvaging an underfinanced public housing project in his native Chile when he decided to build each family half a house (kitchen, bathroom, roof and concrete structure) with space left between the homes for expansion, if and when the families could afford it. The project’s success vaulted Aravena to architecture’s upper echelons, and he has used his newfound status to highlight a participatory movement blooming across the world: the pop-up theaters of UK group Assemble, the housing designs of Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, the floating school of Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi, the mud schools of German architect Anna Heringer. Now the Japanese constellation has joined in—Ito curated the Japanese pavilion at the 2012 Biennale, featuring the Home-for-All program and winning the top prize, the Golden Lion—becoming representative of an architecture charged with activist energy.

Ito continues his self-reinventions. Each time his turn seems suited to the moment ambivalently, equal parts progressive and defeated, and perhaps each time, but certainly this time, the fault rests not with him but the political moment. It’s no coincidence that the rise of architecture’s participatory urgency comes at an hour of many crises, climate change and the related mass movement of migrants prominent among them, but also the manufactured political crisis of neoliberalism, in which the state has receded to such a point that the crisis-reactive acupunctural solutions of participatory design arrive to fill the margins of its ghostly void. Japan itself, under the guidance of Prime Minister Abe, is labouring at an exceptional economic remove no longer. It, too, has begun its neoliberal pivot, and Ito, SANAA and their constellation seem already to be designing in its orbit, suggesting the emergence of a different 21st-century architecture, just barely enclosed within the implications of MoMA’s subtitle—an architecture socially committed but curtailed in scope, in desperate need of the expanded possibilities of a transformed political moment.


William Harris

William Harris
has written recently on African Modernism, Yona Friedman and Rem Koolhaas. He lives in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016.