Toyo Ito wants people to be able to behave as freely as animals behave in nature

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Toyo Ito about the house he grew up in, how it influenced him, and his desire to design forest-like spaces and unconfined buildings.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Aug 21, 2021

Tokyo-based architect Toyo Ito (b. 1941) studied at The University of Tokyo in the early 1960s. At the time Kenzo Tange held his professorship there and Ito then interacted with Arata Isozaki, Kisho Kurokawa, and Kiyonori Kikutake, the founder of Metabolist movement. Following his graduation in 1965, Ito worked for four years for Kikutake. It was the master’s insistence that architecture was an emotional experience, not merely a discourse or theory that has drawn the young architect’s fascination. The master taught Ito how to design architecture with his entire body, as a tangible experience – considering how one feels in the space, touches materials, textures, surfaces, and so on. Before starting his own studio in 1971, initially known under the name of Urban Robot (URBOT), Ito worked on projects for his family and travelled to Europe and America. A series of projects soon started appearing in international publications – White U House for his sister (1976), his own house Silver Hut (1984), and the Tower of Winds (Yokohama, 1986) – a mundane enclosure housing water tanks, turned into a symbolic sign welcoming passengers at the regional train station. In late 1990s, the architect started working on much larger public projects and after the turn of the century his spatially inventive works cemented his reputation as one of the world’s most celebrated architects. His major breakthroughs include wall-less Sendai Mediatheque (1995-2001), parametric Serpentine Gallery (London, 2002, with Cecil Balmond), tree-like TOD's Omotesando Building (Tokyo, 2004), aqueduct-like Tama Art University Library (Tokyo, 2007), and sponge-like National Taichung Theater (2009-16). The architect’s office has served as a training ground for talented young architects. Those who previously worked there include Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA), Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham (founders of KDa and PechaKucha), Katsuya Fukushima (FT Architects), and Akihisa Hirata who Ito considers as the most talented among younger generations of architects in Japan today. In 2013, Toyo Ito was awarded the highest professional honor, the Pritzker Prize. The following is a condensed version of our recent interview over Zoom.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion Image: Courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): I read that when you were a freshman in high school, your mother commissioned Yoshinobu Ashihara, an early Modernist architect who worked at Marcel Breuer’s office in New York, to design your family home in Tokyo. How was that experience and did it influence your decision to go into architecture?

Toyo Ito (TI): Yes, I was 16 when my mother wanted to build a small timber house for four of us, including two of my older sisters. Ashihara then just started working for Breuer in America and the house became a pioneering Modernist structure realised in concrete, not wood, as it was originally envisioned by my mother. I remember the process very well and I discussed the design with Ashihara. In the end, that interaction probably made some influence on my decision to study architecture. 

VB: I am curious if this house still exists.

TI: No. In 1984, the house was taken down to clear space for another building. By then my mother had passed away and I decided to build a bigger house, Silver Hut (1982-84), for my own family. The house was an attempt to connect it to the land and the sky. And then in the 1990s, when I started working on bigger scale projects, I focused even more on trying to connect people and nature through architecture and how it is experienced. I was trained to follow all the main principles of Modernism , but once I started practicing, I realised that Modernism is about asserting itself against nature. This led to questioning it and slowly turning down this so-called wall between Modernist architecture and nature. 

Sendai Mediatheque | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
Sendai Mediatheque Image: Courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects

VB: Many of your projects, particularly Sendai Mediatheque and National Taichung Theater in Taiwan stimulate possibilities for borderless spaces. Could you talk about the key guiding principles for these projects and what were their main inspirations?

TI: When I design a new building, I want to create another kind of nature within the building itself. For example, when I was designing Sendai Mediatheque, I wanted to create a forest-like space within that building. I was imagining myself being surrounded by trees inside the building and by many trees outside the building, as if there was no boundary between inside and outside. And the idea of Taichung Theater was to have a kind of geometry that had no borders and could continue endlessly. When you build a building, it needs to be cut at its limits because you need to protect the interior from the elements. But when I cut my buildings, I still want them to project a feeling as if they could continue without borders, becoming a part of the natural environment. I want to design buildings that are not confined. That’s what I want to achieve – to create buildings that have their own natural environments.

National Taichung Theater | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
National Taichung Theater Image: Kai Nakamura

VB: What you are saying can be expanded by what you mentioned in your lecture at Harvard a few years ago when you said, “There is no confinement in my architecture. It always dissipates.” In other words, many of your buildings are left with unfinished ends; there are no facades the way we understand them traditionally. They are rather sectional cuts. They end but anticipate, as you said, an endless continuity. Even your furniture pieces don’t seem to end, they are simply cut, quite abruptly, right?

TI: To elaborate further, I would add that when I create buildings’ spaces that potentially could extend endlessly, I have no choice but to stop them at their envelops’ limits, and that’s where you would see not a specially designed façade but a rather sectional cut. So, I conceive buildings as continuous systems, not as objects. And that’s also a result of imagining my projects from within. The outside is entirely dependent on what’s inside.  

Skeleton model of National Taichung Theater | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
Skeleton model of National Taichung Theater Image: Courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects

VB: You once said, “I have one dream – architecture should equal nature.” And here is another quote expressing a similar idea, “I want to create architecture where people feel like being in nature.” Could you elaborate on this relationship between architecture and nature in your work?

TI: I think of human beings as part of nature and, essentially, as animals. And in nature animals choose freely where they want to be. They depend on their feelings and instincts. They have quite a bit of freedom of choices. But if you look at Modern architecture, it is quite the opposite, as it is all about function, efficiency, order, rationalism, and so on. Different spaces are meant for specific functions and activities. I find this very limiting and confining. But here is my position – I want people to be able to behave as freely as animals behave in nature. I want them to behave as they wish and as natural to them as they choose. I want to remove walls as much as possible to make places connected and free, as if they were in a park or forest.

VB: I wonder what is your main concern these days and whether you are working on a particular project that you think would allow you to make the next breakthrough? What interesting discoveries should we expect coming from your practice next?

TI: One of my preoccupations now is a large project in Singapore - a new business school for the Nanyang Technological University, which is scheduled to be finished this year. It will be one of the biggest buildings in Asia constructed out of timber. It is a very challenging project to use the mass engineered timber (MET) technology. We are using very large timber members of up to six meters by seven meters. I think this is a kind of structure that I would not be able to achieve in Japan at this moment.

Nanyang Technological University, Academic Building South | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
Nanyang Technological University, Academic Building South Image: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (Client), Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects (Design Architect), and RSP Architects & Engineers (Pte) Ltd (Local Architect), Kazuhiro Kawahara (CG)

VB: This transition from the use of concrete to timber is very interesting because in Japan, concrete is the subject of national pride and some architects have told me that they would not use concrete outside of Japan because they don’t have enough confidence in outside contractors and workers. But now concrete is being criticised because its manufacturing causes emitting more CO2 than the production of any other material. That’s an interesting twist. What do you think?

TI: It is not that I am moving away from using concrete, as we still have projects in Japan where we continue using it. But increasingly, we use a combination of materials, not only concrete. In some of my projects we use both concrete and timber members. But what I am trying to address in my work is moving away from the idea of Modern architects, of creating such buildings that typically shut themselves quite strongly away from their surroundings. This is what I am against. And, of course, I am interested in my buildings being sustainable. Yet, my biggest concern is how to reduce the boundary between exterior and interior – both visually and experientially.

Interior View of Nanyang Technological University, Academic Building South | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
Interior View of Nanyang Technological University, Academic Building South Image: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (Client), Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects (Design Architect), and RSP Architects & Engineers (Pte) Ltd (Local Architect)

VB: Is there one question that you enjoy responding to the most?

TI: [Laughs.] I must tell you that I really enjoyed your questions today because they allowed me to revisit times when I was very young and when I was just starting my career. Typically, I get a lot of very serious and theory-heavy questions that make me feel very tense. But today’s questions made me feel very relaxed and happy.

Silver Hut | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
Silver Hut Image: Courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects

VB: Let me ask you about your Silver Hut house. Do you still live there?

TI: No. Since my wife passed away and my daughter got married, the house became too big for me. So, it was taken apart and rebuilt on Omishima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. This is where my own museum, called Toyo Ito Architecture Museum, was completed in 2011. The reconstructed Silver Hut structure is built next to the exhibition gallery building and is used for archives and workshops. So, the house moved to an island and was transformed from a house to a public space. And I live in an apartment building, designed by Fumihiko Maki.

Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari | Interview with Toyo Ito | STIRworld
Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari Image: Daici Ano

VB: Now, I need to clarify something. When you decided to take down the original house that your mother commissioned Yoshinobu Ashihara to build for your family, was that, in a way, a statement against Modernism, and an assertion of your own, new architecture to be built right over it?

TI: No. It was not that radical for me. My family needed a bigger space and that was the reason for the demolition of the house by Ashihara. Interestingly, when the Silver Hut was first built, Ashihara paid us a visit to see it. And he did ask me then, “How come you destroyed my house?” [laughs].

VB: And what was your answer?

TI: The same – I told him that it was too small [laughs]. But I surprised him because within the new Silver Hut house I incorporated the original entry doorframe and my mother’s room, which was done out of respect and as a tribute to his original house. So, the house was not completely taken apart. But these parts were not rebuilt on Omishima Island. 

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