Art and Design

Brick or stone, Mr Ito?

Sean O' Toole

Sean O' Toole caught up with award-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito at the world congress of the International Union of Architects in Durban.

Last year, Toyo Ito received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession's highest accolade. (Luca Barausse)

The grid is fundamental in architecture, but, as Japanese architect Toyo Ito reminded audiences at the 25th world congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA) in Durban, grids do not occur in nature. Born in Seoul in 1941 to Japanese parents and trained at the University of Tokyo, Ito’s restless and inquisitive brand of prototype-driven architecture has variously tried to reconcile this fundamental opposition. 

Trees are a recurring reference point in his work, which includes avant-garde pavilions, shock-resistant libraries, memorable park spaces and swish retail outlets. A celebrated example of the latter is the store he created for the Italian luxury leather goods retailer Tod’s in the Omotesando district of Tokyo. Nature is a stereotypical theme in Japanese society, yet Ito invokes it without any hint of sentimentality in a design that references the winter silhouettes of bare Zelkova trees in the building’s irregular concrete and glass façade. 

Last year, when he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s highest accolade, the jury noted: “Ito is a creator of timeless buildings, who at the same time boldly charts new paths. His architecture projects an air of optimism, lightness and joy, and is infused with both a sense of uniqueness and universality.” 

He is also a maverick spirit. 

When Ito set out to forge his distinctive career path as an architect in 1971, he called his fledgling practice Urbot (a contraction of “Urban Robot”; it was soberly rebranded Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects in 1979). 

Ito started his Durban UIA address by directing his audience to a series of drawings by Belgian comic book artist François Schuiten, each depicting an expanding grid structure overtaking a city. 

Shortly before his keynote address, Ito sat down with this star-struck journalist to take a brief examination. 

Ito-san, nice to meet you. I’m going to reprise my role as a rural junior high school teacher from 15 years ago and ask you a series of “this or that” questions.
Sure, no problem.

Which is more important, material or concept?
Concept, of course. But recently I have become interested in materials like wood, concrete, stone and brick.

So which do you prefer, brick or stone?
Brick, because it is an ecological material. Recently I designed my personal studio. It is a small building for teaching private students. The structure is a steel frame but the wall is made of bricks from Tokoname, a city 350km south of Tokyo. It is famous for its very good ceramics.

Digital or analogue?
Completely analogue.

Do you use email and mobile phone?
Sure, but not that much. I am very analogue.

How important is sketching?
I don’t sketch so much. When I sketch it is very vague, like clouds. If I make drawings that are very precise, my staff cannot extend the image. When I make very ambiguous sketches it allows them to expand on the idea.

Osaka or Tokyo?
Well, I’ve lived in Tokyo for more than 50 years, but I’m so tired by it. More and more I find Tokyo to be a boring city. It is a sophisticated city, but not creative. Tokyo architects are too serious. In a sense, architects from the Kansai region [Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto] are more conceptual. Young architects in Osaka are very radical. Maybe they are rebelling against [Osaka-based architect] Tadao Ando. [Giggles]

Sort of challenging the father.
A voice from the wings: more like grandfather.

So this has been a bit silly, everything being either this or that. Which do you prefer, the conjunction “and”, or the word “or”, if you get what I mean?
Maybe “and”. Recently I have become interested in the countryside, especially the earthquake-hit T?hoku region. My Home-for-All community centres are very ordinary in their design and not creative in any way. But in other projects, like some of the ones I’m working on in Asian countries outside Japan, I want to be creative and new, even radical. It is a completely different direction to my T?hoku projects. But I want to be able to pursue both trajectories. So yes, definitely “and”. [Laughs]

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