The many faces of Toyo Ito: A tribute to the paragon of architectural versatility

On the occasion of the decorated Japanese architect’s 80th birthday, STIR presents a journey through the many forms and personas adopted by Ito throughout his career.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : May 31, 2021

"My work has always been about tearing down this wall that separates modern architecture from nature and the local community, in order to create architecture that is open to both"

- Toyo Ito in his 2013 Pritzker Prize acceptance speech

Born in Seoul, Korea, during the country’s Japanese occupation in 1941, Toyo Ito initially developed an interest in architecture while studying at the University of Tokyo. He then went on to work at the firm of Kiyonori Kikutake & Associates, before founding his own practice Urban Robot (Urbot), which was rechristened Toyo Ito and Associates in 1979. In the decades since, Ito has become a paragon of versatility who refuses to be pigeonholed into a specific style or ideology. His achievements throughout his distinguished career speak for themselves, with accolades that include the 2006 RIBA Royal Gold Medal and two Venice Biennale Golden Lions. Employing an ever-evolving approach that doesn’t conform to any one category, Ito’s attitude towards his practice has always been driven by a need to reinvent himself when required.

Commenting on his views towards architecture during the Kenneth Kassler lecture he gave at Princeton University in 2009, Ito stated: “The natural world is extremely complicated and variable, and its systems are fluid – it is built on a fluid world. In contrast to this, architecture has always tried to establish a more stable system”. He further described how the grid system, implemented in the 20th century, had made building faster and more efficient than ever before, yet had also projected homogeneity into the world’s cities and extended this effect to their inhabitants. Ito explained: "In response to that, over the last 10 years, by modifying the grid slightly I have been attempting to find a way of creating relationships that bring buildings closer to their surroundings and natural environment”.  

Silver Hut (1984), built as Ito’s personal residence in Nakano was among Ito’s initial residential commissions where he developed his conceptual style | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Silver Hut (1984), built as Ito’s personal residence in Nakano, was among the architect’s initial residential commissions where he developed his conceptual style Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Forgemind ArchiMedia, Creative Commons

The celebrated Japanese architect has also, on occasion, described his impression of architecture as a "piece of clothing that wraps around human beings". Constantly morphing and adapting his trademarks to meet the need of the hour, Ito’s projects are often undercut by the qualities of lightness, abstraction, and austerity. Fuelled by internal critique alongside an innate desire to defy conventions, he attempts to reflect the dynamism and aesthetic value inherent in the natural world. Sculptural, conceptual forms, elements of restrained minimalism, blended ingredients of traditional and contemporary Japanese culture, along with the integration of modern technological implements, are all innate facets of Ito’s untethered, flexible modus operandi.

National Stadium (2006) in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, features a semi-spiral form, inspired by the hide of dragon, enveloped by solar panels | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
National Stadium (2006) in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, features a semi-spiral form, inspired by the hide of dragon, enveloped by solar panels Image: Peellden, Courtesy of Creative Commons

His illustrious oeuvre presents the image of a man in constant motion, an architectural chameleon perpetually in search of innovation while refusing to remain static amidst a world that is ceaselessly in flux. On the momentous occasion of Ito's 80th birthday, STIR presents a journey through his extensive body of work, providing an intriguing look at how the protean architect has remoulded himself at each stage of his career.

1. White U - Nakano, Japan (1976)

The brutalist inspired, introverted design for White U House was one of the first projects that garnered Ito recognition | ToyoIto 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
The brutalist inspired, introverted design for White U House was one of the first projects that garnered Ito recognition Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Forgemind ArchiMedia, Creative Commons

Built for his older sister after a family tragedy, White U house was one of the first projects that garnered Ito recognition. Its introverted, U-shaped design was centered on a courtyard to shelter inhabitants from the external world while austere, white, brutalist-influenced surfaces created meditative spaces punctuated by pockets of light. Unfortunately, the home was demolished in 1997.

2. Tower of Winds - Yokohama, Japan (1986)

Tower of Winds in Yokohama (1986), was a luminous sculpture that reflected Ito’s embracement of technology in creating a city landmark | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Tower of Winds in Yokohama (1986) was a luminous sculpture that reflected Ito’s embracement of technology in creating a city landmark Image: Courtesy of Flickr user José Manuel Ortigueira Bobillo (job), Creative Commons

A technological sculpture near Yokohama railway station, the project is emblematic of Ito's embracement of technology and has become an iconic city landmark. This 21-metre cylindrical tower, clad in perforated aluminium panels, transforms into a luminous spectacle once the sun sets, with neon rings and numerous lamps regulated by computers to respond to the surrounding environment.

3. Yatsushiro Municipal Museum - Yatsushiro, Japan (1991)

A sleek glass and steel museum with a billowing, curved pavilion roof, the museum’s galleries were bermed to give visitors the impression of being underground | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
A sleek glass and steel museum with a billowing, curved pavilion roof, the museum’s galleries were bermed to give visitors the impression of being underground Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Forgemind ArchiMedia, Creative Commons

This intricate glass and steel structure with a billowing pavilion roof, elaborated on the distinct architectural style that Ito had explored with his own residence - 'Silver Hut,' in 1984. Galleries were placed on the lower floors and bermed to give visitors the impression of being underground. Outside, a small mound created above the submerged spaces complements the roof's curves.

4. Odate Dome - Akita, Japan (1997)

Made of Japanese cedar wood and steel, the massive dome enclosed a multipurpose venue, appearing to float above its context | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Made of Japanese cedar wood and steel, the massive dome enclosed a multipurpose venue, appearing to float above its context Image: Marho, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Ito employed an innovative combination of Aita Japanese cedar wood and steel to construct a massive, 52-metre-high dome above this multipurpose venue - that appears to float above the surrounding landscape. Designed to provide ample natural ventilation, light, and shelter from the monsoon rains, the Odate Dome marries Ito's penchant for progressive design with a desire to bring people closer together.

5. Sendai Mediatheque - Sendai-Shi, Japan (2001)

A high point in Ito’s career, the public library/gallery project subverted the traditional grid system to promote openness | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
A high point in Ito’s career, the public library/gallery project subverted the traditional grid system to promote openness Image: scarletgreen, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Often singled out as a high point in his career, the Sendai Mediatheque owes its acclaim to Ito's subversion of the grid system through a relatively simple structure that employed flat concrete slabs punctured by 13 framed steel tubes. Housing a library, galleries, film studio, and community spaces in an open layout, the design waived the use of solid walls to echo the openness of public spaces - also reflected in its transparent, curtain-walled facade.

6. Serpentine Pavilion - London, England (2002)

Designed alongside Cecil Balmond and Arup, the pavilion employed an algorithm to generate a seemingly random, complex pattern of triangles and trapezoids | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Designed alongside Cecil Balmond and Arup, the pavilion employed an algorithm to generate a seemingly random, complex pattern of triangles and trapezoids Image: Lwbalmondstudio.co, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Commissioned to design the 2002 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion at Kensington Gardens, London, Ito collaborated with Cecil Balmond and Arup on an elaborately patterned structure that conveyed a sense of dynamic movement. The complex, seemingly random facade treatment was actually a product of an algorithm describing a rotating cube that formed jagged triangles and trapezoids.

7. TOD’s Omotesando - Tokyo, Japan (2004)

The abstract patterned facade of TOD’s Omotesando drew from the natural branching patterns of trees in its vicinity | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
The abstract patterned facade of TOD’s Omotesando drew from the natural branching patterns of trees in its vicinity Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Sophie Huang

TOD's Omotesando - a retail space in Tokyo is one of Ito's most high-profile projects and perhaps best exemplified his architectural ideals. The abstract, latticed facade features a branching pattern reminiscent of the trees surrounding the structure with intermittent glazed openings that grow larger at higher levels to create an engaging play between its opacity and transparency. Much of its design is symbolic of Ito’s work from this period.

8. Tama Art University Library - Tokyo, Japan (2007)

Ito made extensive use of steel plate arches covered in concrete to define the exterior facade as well as cloister like spaces indoors | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Ito made extensive use of steel plate arches covered in concrete to define the exterior facade as well as cloister like spaces indoors Image: Wiiii, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Featuring the inventive use of a gently sloped ground floor to create continuity between interior and exterior - the library's facade and structure utilise slender, swooping steel plate arches encased in concrete. Glazed facade openings between the arches frame views into a garden outside while the cloister-like spaces inside flesh out and impart a sense of rhythm to distinct zones.

9. Torre Realia BCN and Hotel Porta Fira - Barcelona, Spain (2009)

This dual tower project features in intriguing study in complementary contrast, marking a transition towards a more sculptural, monumental style | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
This dual tower project features in intriguing study in complementary contrast, marking a transition towards a more sculptural, monumental style Image: Zarateman, Courtesy of Creative Commons

This mixed-use dual tower project marked a transition towards a more sculptural, monumental period in Ito's practice, realised with the aid of the Spanish firm b720 Fermín Vázquez Arquitectos. Despite the contrast between a cuboidal, glass-framed structure and a chiselled, red, cylindrical mass, the two buildings possess a unique sense of harmony next to one another - resulting in a stunning visual landmark for the city of Barcelona.

10. Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture - Imabari, Japan (2012)

Built on an island in the Seto Inland Sea, this architecture museum features two structures - the ‘Steel Hut’(pictured) and a pavilion influenced by the ‘Silver Hut’ residence | ToyoIto 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Built on an island in the Seto Inland Sea, this architecture museum features two structures - the ‘Steel Hut’(pictured) and a pavilion influenced by the ‘Silver Hut’ residence Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Forgemind ArchiMedia, Creative Commons

Alongside a replica of Ito's own Silver Hut home, the complex also includes a stacked polyhedral structure enveloped in steel sheeting, designed to imitate the deck of a seafaring vessel. This structure, dubbed the 'Steel Hut,' towers over and contrasts the pavilion-like structure of Silver Hut. The entire complex is nestled on a picturesque island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Koo Chen-Fu Memorial Library, College of Social Sciences, National Taiwan University, Taiwan (2014) features mushrooming white columns framing a framed glass envelope | Toyo Ito 80th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Koo Chen-Fu Memorial Library, College of Social Sciences, National Taiwan University, Taiwan (2014) features mushrooming white columns framing a framed glass envelope Image: Wei-Te Wong, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons
“I have always tried to push my architecture forward without allowing my style to remain static. And I have done this in the interest both of architectural "innovation" and in order to attain a level of calmness.”

While receiving the Pritzker Prize in 2013, Ito expressed his opinion on the overall responsibility of being an architect, stating: "For me, the task of the architect is to release people from restrictive frameworks by creating spaces in which they feel at ease and in which they can attain some degree of freedom".

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