Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2007
Toyo Ito: The New “Real” in Architecture
Exhibition schedule: Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, October 7–December 24, 2006; Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai, Japan, April 13–May 19, 2007; Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, Japan, June 9–September 2, 2007. The show is expected to be offered at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008, probably in a modified form.
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Toyo Ito. Project for Taichung Metoropolitan Opera House (2005–). CG image. Courtesy Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.

In Japan, Toyo Ito (born 1941) is considered one of the most important figures in post-War Japanese architecture. Based in Tokyo, he has valued both theory and practice, and has used each of them to perceptively articulate the implications of social change. In the 1970s, Ito reflected Japan’s technological enthusiasm, originally calling his firm URBOT, an abbreviation of “Urban Robot.” His work of this period ultimately culminated in Silver Hut, a high-tech aluminum home for his family, where windows were cranked shut by the kind of mechanisms found in automobiles of the time and people sat on airy, expanded-metal chairs. In the following year, 1985, Ito shifted gears, his investigations inaugurated by the first “Pao,” a tent for “the Nomadic Woman of Tokyo,” which suggested that many of the functions of the home were now diffused into the city’s convenience stores, coin laundries, and social sites. This modest installation initiated a series of projects reflecting Ito’s sense that society had become increasingly rootless, buildings were ephemeral, and the reliable context for works little more than the wind; Ito’s 1995 competition design for Sendai Mediatheque was the climax of this phase in his work. The program requirements for Mediatheque were ambiguous; in response, Ito offered up a technological playground for an urbane population, articulating the building as an open container that could be freely transformed over time. Initial variations in floor heights, finishes, and lighting meant that no transformation would ultimately affect the building as a whole.

I was privileged to spend a great deal of time on the Mediatheque construction site, and I vividly recall Ito’s struggles to come to terms with this building. The competition-winning model offered up a delicate filigree of lattice-like tubes supporting insubstantial floors; the whole resembled a sparkling, transparent web. The actual structure on site was made of powerful pipes which seemed all the heavier because of their charcoal-grey primer paints. Ito spoke often of his desire to erase this robust steel; vertical tubes were painted white and walls were finished in shimmering opalescent mirrors, but the strength of this remarkable structure could not be denied.

The exhibition Toyo Ito: The New “Real” in Architecture, held at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, commences with Ito’s recollections of this crucial moment in his practice. While Ito’s voice is not a significant part of the exhibition, in the first gallery’s opening text panel he speaks directly: “Visiting the Sendai Mediatheque construction site, I was overwhelmed by the power of the tremendous steel structure. The crane danced steel panels through the air, sparks fluttered around me, and the acrid scent of welding filled the air. This was entirely different than the usual construction site. . . . Could I turn toward a richer architecture, of deeper materiality? After Sendai, I began to grope for a solution.” (Translated from the original by this author. Most of the panels and labels in the galleries are solely in Japanese; the catalogue includes English translations of critical texts.)

Oddly, the work highlighted in this first room is not Mediatheque, and in fact is a project that seems almost antithetical to Ito’s statement. The gallery features the competition-winning designs for a single, unbuilt project—the December 2005 proposal for the Taichung [Taiwan] Metropolitan Opera House. A huge model, 1.8 meters wide by 3.8 meters long and 1 meter tall, sits on an even larger base; a park-like space in front of the opera house is represented by a second, 8.4-meter-long model that fills the room. These models present the building’s fluidly labyrinthine interiors as an extension of the natural world, a honeycomb of hourglass-like volumes accommodating a cave-like continuous flow of public spaces and barely enclosed theaters for the performing arts, unlike any completed building that one has ever seen. Panels along one wall argue for the care taken in assuring that this project is as buildable as it is unbelievable; computer simulations show how the open halls will perform acoustically and how structural forces are distributed along the shell-like skin, while technical drawings offer up two plausible construction approaches that can be employed to create these curvaceous interiors. The room that follows immediately reinforces this argument, and is filled with a full-scale mockup of the sinuous formwork for the recently completed crematorium in Kakamigahara (in Gifu Prefecture, Japan). The mockup is stained and clearly built from the materials used at the time of construction. Gallery visitors timidly climb on this rolling surface, unaware of the experience to come as they pass across the steep, undulating floor of the next space.

This third room is the heart of the exhibition, and reflects Ito’s current excitement with structural innovation. Six large models are salted across a landscape-like floor built for the exhibition, and the long walls of the space are covered with six-meter-tall construction documents—sections, at full scale. Five small video screens show each project from sketch through construction through inhabitation (for completed buildings like Tods, Mikimoto Ginza 2, and the Serpentine Pavilion), or else concentrate on the remarkable construction process of works yet to be finished; some of the construction documents and photographs from this room are also found in the catalogue to the exhibition. A portion of the web-like facade of the 2004 Tods Omotesando materializes along the narrow wall opposite the entry. Abstract drawings on the left blend seamlessly with cabinet-quality formwork, the interstices filled with rebar at the midpoint of the wall; on the right is a “completed” section, apparently concrete, but in fact simply a very convincing application of mortar over wood.

While architects and construction professionals are inevitably transfixed by the rich content of the videos and drawings—explaining groundbreaking construction innovations in wood, steel, and concrete—for the public, the room’s fascination lies quite literally in its topographical floor. The white surface contorts like a landscape of snowdrifts into which an imaginary group of children has carved pits adjacent to each architectural model, the better to peer into their interiors. The playful character of these hollows is underscored by their pastel colors, which contrast with the otherwise modernist palette of the space. (Drawings on the walls are black lines on white, and the models are mostly charcoal grey, with the occasional introduction of an actual material such as mortar or wood.) People you would not expect to find in an architectural exhibition, such as bent grandmothers and small children, giggle, climb down into the pits, and linger. The space collects groups in conversation, seemingly unaware of how Ito has again created an architecture, albeit a temporary installation, that effectively encourages social discourse.

Although Opera City Gallery offers four shows a year, this is only the third architectural exhibition served up in these galleries (Yoshio Taniguchi was featured in 2005 and Jean Nouvel in 2003). Another follows in spring 2007, featuring the work of Terunobu Fujimori, who was included in the 2005 Venice Biennale. Unlike the two earlier shows, Ito’s is a more lavish production, the first here to offer up the experience of being in works by the architect. Because of the costs involved, most architectural exhibitions rely on photographs and models, with perhaps smaller fragments of building. Ito has always tried to use installations to embrace the body and express the experience of his work, a practice that only a few other architectural designers (including Fujimori) have adopted. Without writing a word, Ito argues through this undulating floor and its effect that his work today, in spite of its fascination with innovative structure, remains one committed to community.

Beyond the mockup of the Tods facade is an area that the Opera City Art Gallery conventionally uses for projecting videos. Here, visitors to the show will finally find a surprisingly modest display of materials related to Sendai Mediatheque, the project that first challenged Ito to undertake his current quest. In order to display projections, the room is dimly lit; two panels and two tiny photographs (by the esteemed photographer Naoya Hatakeyama) are so discretely displayed on the walls flanking these projections that many may miss them. In a far corner, a glimmering model portrays that initial, ephemeral vision Ito hoped to achieve in Mediatheque.

As if to acknowledge this turning point, the exhibition shifts abruptly in the final, corridor-like space, where a thirty-meter-long wall offers up a chronology of Ito’s work from 1970 to the present. There is a remarkable level of extraneous but interesting detail here: A snapshot shows a young Ito in a flirtatious moment during a trip through the United States; under each year is noted the number of staff in the office (three from 1971 all the way until 1977; still only a dozen in 1988; and forty-eight today); a video shows Kazuyo Sejima at the time she entered Ito’s firm; and manuscript sheets for published texts show Ito’s carefully rendered kanji characters neatly marching across the planes of gridded Japanese writing paper. Many of these materials are, thankfully, extensively documented in the accompanying catalogue. The chronology makes up almost one quarter of the book, followed by warm reminiscences by staff, which are excerpted from the videos (both sections are only in Japanese). These charming additions serve to distract, however, from a rather subversive feature of this chronology: it is a gentle but deliberate revision of Ito’s output, emphasizing the technological and spatially fluid. Missing are his digital infatuations and conception of two simultaneous modes of existence, as expressed at installations at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1991; his 1993 exhibition at O Museum in Tokyo’s Osaki, entitled Digital Membrane, Buildings of Water; or his series of proposals for developing a rooftop network of gardens overlaying gritty Tokyo, starting with a series of “simulated cities” in the early 1990s. Ito’s recent explorations of aluminum, including his 2005 SUS Company Housing in Fukushima and his 2006 aluminum cottage, are portrayed, but their minimal inclusion here certainly raises questions as to why these equally innovative buildings were not highlighted earlier in the exhibition.

In discovering all the words on this wall, the stream of conversations in the videos, the manuscripts, and the trade journals featuring Ito’s work, one is struck by the fact that the theoretical ideas behind his current approach to architecture are unstated elsewhere. Instead, the show focuses on the formal nature of his buildings today, the manner in which these unusual structures emerge from a loosening of the Modernist grid, and the new technological approaches he has squeezed from the conventional materials of construction. Also, as Opera City has no internal curators, Ito and his office, working with the Toyo Ito Exhibition Executive Committee, designed the exhibition and published the related catalogue themselves; this reinterpretation of Ito’s work comes from the office.

Following an oddly placed set of non-architectural pieces (featuring the Ripple bench, scattered throughout the gallery, and frog-encrusted dishware for Alessi), the show culminates in a wall of hardhats, each marked with the name of a sponsor. The Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery is part of a large cultural foundation established in 1999 that receives a modest $5 million annually from the Japanese government, with remaining costs covered through donations. Corporate supporters such as NTT Urban Development and Nippon Life Insurance offer ongoing funding for operating costs and generous support for individual cultural events such as this show. In addition, the Ito office drew in forty-four other corporate sponsors for the exhibition: all five major contractors in Japan, an aluminum fabricator Ito has been working with for some time, major glass suppliers, Autodesk, and a variety of other corporations directly tied to the work on the wall. In spite of the generous corporate support, the closing helmets and discrete logos on entry tickets are the only place where the fabricators, suppliers, structural engineers, and contractors who help make Ito’s work a reality are named; there are no labels attached to individual projects supplying data such as the construction team or building costs.

An earlier version of the undulating floor at the heart of this show was installed in Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in mid-2006. In the opening wall text I mentioned earlier, and in the catalogue accompanying The New “Real” in Architecture, Ito and others discuss his, and modern architecture’s, debt to Mies; Ito counters the dry uniformity of Mies’s grids with his loose, “emerging grid” and challenges Mies’s famous aphorism “Less is More.” But this show suggests another, unstated dictum credited to Mies, which Ito has embraced: “Don’t talk, build.” Through these varied and dynamic works, Ito challenges others to celebrate not merely the intellectual conception of their own architecture, but also to discover how deeper reflections on social and technological change may point to a new architecture that is markedly different from the structures we know today.

Dana Buntrock
Associate Professor, Department of Architecture, University of California,
Berkeley

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.