Interview: Toyo Ito

Japanese architect Toyo Ito is credited with influencing a generation of younger architects with his ideas about contemporary urban forms. While presenting some of his recent work at an exhibition at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery in 2006, he spoke with journalist Colin Liddell about his designs, his theories, and their origin.

Colin Liddell: In all your buildings, you seem to be trying to get away from straight lines. Do you hate straight lines?

Toyo Ito: I don't hate straight lines, but I have liked curved lines since I was a child. It's a bit like my character. When I talk, when I think, it's not in straight lines. It's a bit curved, it's soft, and in a way it resembles my inner character.

Liddell: Sometimes innovative works of architecture draw unlikely comparisons. Norman Foster's recent building in London is now popularly known as the "The Gherkin," and the Guggenheim Museum in New York is sometimes compared to a toilet. The models for your latest project, the Taichung Opera House, struck me as looking like large piece of cheese.

Ito: When you look at a cheese, the holes in the cheese are all compartments. They don't go through. But in this building, it's the opposite. All the holes go through, like in a cave. There's a continuity. And if you think about the human body as well, from the mouth all the way down to the ass, there's a continuity. It's a cave.

Liddell: This way of looking at things recalls the ideas of the 1980s "tubist" movement that rejected the reduction of things to geometric forms and tried to perceive them as tubular systems involved in a process. Are you a tubist?

Ito: I'm very aware of that movement, but in my case I'd prefer to put more emphasis on the tubes existing as part a network. I guess you could call me a neotubist. It's a bit like the human intestines, where there's an ambiguity between the inside and outside, and that inside/ outside dichotomy is blurred, and that's what I'm interested in.

Liddell: I notice that most of the big architectural projects these days have to serve a multiplicity of functions to actually be successful. In the Taichung Opera House for example, you have a garden on the roof, different theaters, and office space, all squeezed in. Your breakthrough project, the Sendai Mediatheque is a multipurpose public cultural center that includes a library, art gallery, audio-visual library, film studio, and cafe. Your architectural style seems to be very good at making a building serve many different functions.

Ito: If you look at 20th century functionalism, where functions were clearly separate, there was a strict order between establishing all functions separately. Now in 21st century, it's more of a condition where living and working, playing and working, they are all intermingled. You play while you work, you do your living while you work. So, in this sort of confused condition of contemporary city life, I feel like I want to bring that into my architecture.

Liddell: This creates a condition of overlapping functions. That can also create stresses, conflicts, and confusion, can't it?

Ito: Well I think there are people who might feel like that, but, personally, I am very interested in what I call a "loose condition," and I have gained confidence in that concept ever since the Sendai Mediatheque. Traditional libraries have confined rooms where you do your reading and your research. With the Mediatheque we wanted to break that up. Instead of providing secluded rooms, we provide places, and the [individual] chooses whatever places he or she wishes. We also wanted different groups to share space. For example, old people might be in places where young people are, and therefore the old people look at the fashion of the young people and become more fashionable! Or mothers can look after their children and do other stuff as well because they are in the vicinity and they can share the same place. In that sense, giving places rather than rooms has become very meaningful for me.

Liddell: I would imagine that for this concept to work in practice, it would depend on everybody sharing quite similar values of correct behavior and basically being very respectful of each other.

Ito: If we look back at the Sendai Mediatheque, there are, of course, homeless people who also come into the building, but, in general, there is a type of person who comes and shares the building. It becomes a little bit like looking at each other, and thereby also controlling who comes in. Whether that is good or bad is another thing, but these people create the atmosphere and character of the building. There's a Japanese saying that "kind attracts kind."

Liddell: You're also well known for your commercial buildings in Tokyo, like the TODs Building in Aoyama and the Mikimoto Building in Ginza. Both of these have very eye-catching surfaces, although they have the typical box-like shape of buildings in Tokyo. Does the high cost of land in Tokyo mean that architects can mainly express themselves through innovative surfaces rather than innovative structures which might not utilize the available space to the maximum?

Ito: For TODs, as you say rightly, surface became our main focus for tackling the project. Yes, there have been a lot of projects in Tokyo where it has only been about surface, but we wanted to move towards creating surface out of structure, or allowing structural principles to become the surface. With the TODs building, the interior structure is the same as the outside. You can see that inside the shop, where the surface becomes part of the shop and changes its configuration. So the interior and the exterior experience of the surface is the same.

Architecture Week
10th January, 2007
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