Ito: When I was a student, Kenzo Tange's Yoyogi Stadium was under construction. That was very impressive for me. I think that was the peak of his career. After the 1970s, he got a very big name and got other commissions from other countries, and he didn't have many commissions in Japan, so his career after that was a little bit disappointing, but his career in the '50s and '60s was very impressive, and the buildings he designed then must remain as masterpieces of architecture.
Liddell: Are you making a distinction between the work he did in Japan as good, and the projects he did overseas as not quite so good?
Ito: It's not like what he did in Japan was better than what he did abroad, but he kind of reached the peak of his career before the 1970s and after that his peak had passed.
Liddell: So perhaps his creativity became too diluted or thinly spread?
Ito: I don't think it's just about his own personal creativity to create great architecture. It's really related to the economy and also who was working for him. There are many processes involved in making architecture. But the time of the '50s and '60s was special for Japan. There was the economic boom, so in that time Kenzo Tange was the perfect architect for the moment. The man and the era came together.
Liddell: Regarding the Praemium Imperiale, the selection process is a bit mysterious. I'm not sure how they decide. Why do you think you were selected for the prize this time?
Ito: I don't know. I want to ask them the reasons. This prize is not for the man of the year or the person who did something this year. It's not like that. It's a kind of lifetime achievement award. So, it really depends on the jury. I'm really not sure why they chose me.
Liddell: So, looking back at your "lifetime achievement," which of your projects are you most proud of?
Ito: If I have to choose one, it would of course have to be the Sendai Mediatheque.
Liddell: What is it about the Mediatheque that makes you so proud of it?
Ito: It's mainly because it changed the whole way I think about architecture and society. Before that project I didn't think society actually expected much from architects. My idea was that we didn't really have much of a social impact. But after that project, I actually watched what happened at the Mediatheque, and the people who used that space really enjoyed that building and it changed their behavior.
So, my thinking towards architecture and society completely changed. We have a project in Europe. I felt something different there, as if European people really expect something important from architecture, but here in Japan, the architect's role is thought of in more limited terms. But, after Sendai, attitudes started to change. I started to think that if I made an effort to create something, then it would have more social impact and be accepted by society.
Liddell: So, through the Mediatheque, you widened your horizons and realized there were more possibilities and effects from architecture?
Ito: That's right.
Liddell: Talking about the Mediatheque, I read somewhere you had some disappointments with the Mediatheque. In particular, the "diaphanous swaying webs" you imagined on paper became much more rigid and bulky. Is this true?
Ito: Maybe you read this sentence somewhere in a book or something, but the truth is a little bit different. At the time of the competition for the Sendai Mediatheque, it is true that we were considering very delicate, very beautiful tubelike structures, and during the process of design and construction, they became more thick and strong. But this wasn't a disappointment for me, as I enjoyed the way that the actual Mediatheque developed in contrast to some of the aspects of the design, especially as the strength of the tube and structures were important. It is normal, I think, for architecture to change during the entire process.
Liddell: As you suggest, there is of course a certain tension between creative imagination and realization. When you take things from the mind into the physical world, a lot of adjustment has to be made. How conscious are you of that difference? Do you fight against it or do you actively expect it to be different?
Ito: That process from creation to realization is very difficult to explain, because, generally speaking, when I imagine something, there's no gravity and there's nothing restricting imagination, but when we embark on the process of realization, we have to enter the real world. In this respect also, the Sendai Mediatheque was key to me. When I first imagined the Mediatheque, I wanted to create a beautiful space and beautiful architecture, especially because, at that time, I didn't think society really expected anything beyond "architecture" from architects.
I had that attitude, but the process and the realization changed my mind, because during the process of planning and building, there were actually many people against the design. I had to fight to convey my vision to the wider society and spread its appeal.
After it was completed, it may have been different from the originally envisioned space, but the architecture now had more sharply defined appeal for the people using the building. Imagination, creation, the process — it's actually very difficult to explain the gap, but in the case of the Mediatheque, my thinking and attitude to society and architecture changed.
Liddell: So, in the case of Mediatheque, there was a very strong dialogue between the different aspects, first between idea and realization, then between the plan and the public reaction, and then between your ideas and the critics of your ideas?
Ito: Yes, definitely.
Liddell: It seems that there was a lot of pushing and pulling.
Ito: Including the people who were against the Sendai Mediatheque in the loop, then incorporating that within my own mind, then looking at architecture as part of a social process — that was actually the first experience for me. I had designed and completed other public buildings before, but the citizens hadn't really been involved in the process much. Instead, just the mayor would come to the opening and make a speech saying, "this is a very unique building, blah, blah." After Sendai something changed.
Liddell: So it sounds very Hegelian — thesis, antithesis, synthesis. From the struggle, something new is created.
Ito: Yes, yes! That's right!
Liddell: To focus on the details, what form did the opposition take? What kind of criticisms did people actually make about the design?
Ito: The users who were going to work in the library and the gallery were really against the design because they couldn't imagine how such tubes in the structure would work. Their way of thinking was that if it were just a normal structure with conventional columns and walls, it would be more convenient for placing books and hanging paintings on the wall. For them it was very difficult to respond to the Mediatheque space, because they assumed there was a room for this and a room for that, and this is how space is used, so it was very difficult for them to imagine how they could actually use the space and the tube structures.
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