Up Close & Personal – Toyo Ito
Interview by Barbara Hahijary Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono, Anabata, Kai Nakamura, Ishiguro Photographic Institute, Miyagi Prefecture Sightseeing Section and Toyo Ito & Associates Doc.
What was the idea in founding your first firm Urban Robot?
In the 1960s, I was working for Metabolist Group (founded by Kiyonori Kikutake) along with Fumihiko Maki and Kisho Kurokawa. My passion for designing futuristic cities was supported by Japan’s economic growth in that particular decade. Later I found that the firm had a different vision of the future. I decided to establish my own firm to create people-oriented developments and cities. Since then, my main concern has always been the people who are going to use my work. In every development I always think about human nature: their goals, and how they conduct their daily lives.
How did you develop such organic architecture forms?
I believe that creating the work of architecture is not about building straight lines vertically and horizontally, because even the foundation – the land and the nature – brings its contour first hand. Now is the time when humans make buildings, but a long time ago our ancestors lived inside nature – tree trunks, caves or other forms of natural shelters. People dwelled right on the ground. This makes the ground feel familiar; hence, people aim to have grounded houses, because it really gives the natural homey feeling that makes people relax. In my architecture, I ensure that people will be in touch with nature, or at least with the neighbourhood and its surroundings. I make many openings in indoor spaces to invite nature from the outside surroundings.
I am very much inspired by the forms of nature. That is why I do many organic designs. It goes further to the interior to make design holistic. Like in Sendai Mediatheque, I cut the module to achieve both interior and façade. It was very nature-inspired yet very edgy. With the current technology, we can make design that is safe for us and allows us to be in touch with the nature.
Please share with us about the Home-for-All project.
After the tsunami, I visited sites and found out that Central Government had prepared for temporary housings, but for me it was so inhuman. It was just boxes like containers. The victims had no place to meet and eat together. So I decided to do fundraising from private institutions, some were outside Japan. I designed a very small wooden house with a big dining table, fireplace, meeting rooms and hallways for them to gather.
With Home-for-All, people who are living in the temporary housing can get the warmth of family and society by the togetherness. I designed the first 16 units of Home-for-All in Tohoku area along with young people, but then the Governor from Kumamoto Prefecture wanted to create Home-for-All for each temporary housing. So about 100 units of Home-for-All were built in a year. It is a small community space, but I think it is necessary, not only for tsunami or earthquake areas, but also in small towns to develop communities.
How do people respond your design?
I don’t always get a nod. Many people disliked my design when it’s still on paper. Sendai Mediatheque is one example. I got many critics before the construction began. Upon the completion of the project, they started to appreciate and enjoy the architecture. This also happened with the Minna-no-Mori Gifu Media Cosmos, which was visited by 1.5 million people during the first year of opening – almost four times of the Gifu population. I am happy that many people are pleased and enjoy my buildings. This makes me feel thankful about my job and want to give more.
Throughout the years of your practice, what are the major changes in Japanese urban development?
Tokyo is now changing into a city of huge buildings. This makes me not really feel comfortable with big cities, but then I still keep my office in Shibuya. This area is getting busier as there is a big development nearby the station for the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics. Uniquely, my office is very small and in an old building, which contrasts with the view of the city. In big cities, I like to see the composition of the new and old.
Who are the young Japanese architects that you sought after?
Akihisa Hirata, Inui Kumiko and Maki Onishi.
After more than 50 years in your career, what else do you want to design?
Currently I’m focusing on community-based architecture, but surely there are still some high-rise developments. I don’t want to be involved in the new city centre projects in Japan because I have nothing to do with all of these anymore.
These cities have developed into what they are today. But maybe in Tokyo I still want to try my hand in several old and historic areas. I feel better working in the countryside and rural areas so they will also maintain their nature, vernacular architecture and develop their communities. I think the higher the building, the thicker the boundary of the human inside the building to reach out for nature. This should be the concern over the coming years.