The biggest characteristic of the Sendai Mediatheque building is that there are no interior walls dividing it into rooms, so after it opened, many interesting things happened. For example, there was a workshop by students, and just next to them there was a computer seminar for the elderly, with no wall between them. The old people were actually very happy being with the young people, so I heard that their fashion actually changed to reflect that of the young people.
Liddell: Your architecture is sometimes described as an attempt to blend the virtual world and the actual world, meaning you create a very media-sensitive architecture [in tune with media-technology culture and related human behavior patterns]. But what kind of problems does that create?
Ito: In answer to your question, this question is not only about the architecture. In society now, there's much information — the virtual and the physical have merged not only in architecture, but also in other aspects of society. For example, when you go to a restaurant or somewhere, you actually find the information you need from the internet or something. We are covered by information and we are also influenced by commercials as well. But, at the same time, physical reality — how we feel about the food — changes, so both the virtual world of information and the physical realm coexist in the 21st century.
Architecture has to respond to that, and the architect has to respond to how people use the architecture, and the comfort and usability. There have always been elements of the virtual and the physical in architecture, so it's not about trying to mingle the virtual and actual. It's just a very natural thing that the virtual and the physical coexist at the same time.
Liddell: In previous ages, the typical house was built around the fireplace. You'd have a big fire and everything was built around that, or focused on that. Now the internet, computers, video screens, etc., are much more important. Just today I was walking past a convenience store and they had these large plasma screens in the window playing advertisements. That's the kind of thing we never saw before. Could we say your architecture expresses an aesthetic appropriate to the society we now live in with modern media and internet technology?
Ito: It's a very difficult question, but, of course, as you said, nowadays people don't gather around the fireplace. The internet has replaced that position and everybody acts very cool and detached. They don't get together and do the same thing. That means there's no central point in this society. There are multiple points and people just move through as it pleases them. With the Sendai Mediatheque, it's not the place where all the information gathers. People just like go to relax and maybe read some books. It's not like the center of the media, but more like a free central point of the city.
Liddell: How does it change people's behavior?
Ito: It facilitates unscripted behavior. For example, in the library people can take a nap on the sofa or the bench, while on the other side people can eat a bento. They actually feel free within this space. I want to create a kind of new salon for the society. In the case of Sendai, the citizens have come to accept the center as a new symbol of the city, as one of the central points of the city, but also a place they can use very freely.
Liddell: From your explanation, I get the feeling that your architectural philosophy is a kind of inversion of the old Metabolist idea of architecture, which believed that buildings should be designed to be flexible and constantly change to suit human needs. Of course, your buildings don't move around and alter themselves in accord with Metabolist principles, which is frankly a kind of unrealistic idea, but instead your architecture allows the people to be flexible, and, so, promotes human flexibility rather than structural flexibility.
Ito: Yes. Exactly!
Liddell: So, can we say that your philosophy has been inspired by Metabolism, but that you've taken it to a different place?
Ito: Yes, that's correct.
Liddell: A few months ago I went to the "Where is Architecture?" exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art. Generally, I was not so impressed by this exhibition, but I enjoyed the display that you prepared. It was based on your design for the Deichman Main Library competition in Oslo. When I saw this display, which emphasized geometry, I got a strong impression that you're very interested in mathematical properties. I got the feeling that you enjoy the mathematical side of architecture. How true is that?
Ito: I'm very happy about your comment regarding that exhibition. On the night of the opening, I went to dinner with the young architects involved in that show and I made a really harsh speech, strongly criticizing them. As the exhibition's title was "Where is Architecture?" my question to them was the same: "Where's your architecture?" I think that I'm very serious about what I make for tomorrow, but they seemed a little bit more complacent. I wouldn't say they're relaxed, but maybe they're not serious. Making something for tomorrow is a very serious thing for an architect, but I didn't have that impression from their exhibits.
To answer your question about mathematics, I really want to change the geometry of architecture, because now I am interested in finding something between architecture and nature, using the new type of fractal geometry. As you said, I really enjoy the mathematical aspects of architecture. It is true. I really feel that way. In the office we don't yet know how to apply the new geometry to the real world of architecture, so we are wrestling with this.
Liddell: You are critical of the architects at the "Where is Architecture?" exhibition, but which young architects do you actually admire in Japan at the moment?
Ito: One is Sousuke Fujimoto and the other is Akihisa Hirata. Both of them are around 40.
Liddell: I saw Fujimoto's recent "Future Visions: Forest, Cloud, Mountain" exhibition at the Watari-um and was very impressed by it. What particularly do you like about his approach and his style?
Ito: Mr. Fujimoto has the approach of "future primitivism," which is a kind of similar philosophy to mine. In society right now advanced media is all around us. Perhaps because of this we also have a strong craving to feel the primitive, natural side of life. In this way, I feel there is a common philosophy between me and Mr. Fujimoto. With Mr. Hirata, he doesn't have many built projects yet, but also we share the same outlook. He used to work for my firm before, on the Tod's building in Omotesando, and also the Taichung Opera House, which is under construction right now. He had an installation for Canon at the Milan Salone this year and last year. Both the geometry and the design were very interesting.
Liddell: Right now the Japanese economy is pretty stagnant and the country seems to be under a malaise. How does this effect architecture and what is the way forward?
Ito: There are not many architectural competitions in Japan now, and architecture is in a bad way. This situation makes architects go abroad to work. But we also have to think about our construction skills and ability. The craftsmanship here is very, very high, especially the construction workers. We shouldn't lose those people — for example, the workers making the concrete forms and steel rods. It may not be a particularly respected job, but those people have exceptional skills.
For example, when we made the Tod's building, they used three-dimensional computing programs that generated the very complicated forms. From my experience, this level of skill and the techniques involved only exist in this country. Also, at the same time these techniques and skills also point the way towards new architecture. Tod's Aoyama and the Tama Library are really good examples of this. Without these really good workers, we couldn't have achieved that.
Japanese architect Toyo Ito received the 2010 Praemium Imperiale award for architecture. He spoke with ArchitectureWeek contributor C.B. Liddell in November 2010, with the help of a translator.
C.B. Liddell lives in Japan. He is the art and architecture editor of Tokyo's Metropolis, and also writes regularly for The Japan Times and a number of other publications. More by C.B. Liddell
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