How Toyo Ito Designs Architecture That's Made For Life, Including This Building In Singapore
Toyo Ito does not build monuments. His architecture can be monumental certainly, but at its core there is something intimate and self-effacing. In 2013, when Ito was awarded with the Pritzker Prize—often considered the Nobel Prize for architecture—critic Thomas de Monchaux described him as a “chameleon” who puts the lie to the notion of the architect as hero.
(Related: Meet Ashish Manchharam, The Man Breathing New Life Into Heritage Buildings)
Ito himself acknowledges that his work is always a collaboration, whether it is with the many talented young architects in his firm, some of whom have gone on to earn their own fame and acclaim, or with the people who eventually populate the buildings he designs.
A lot of architecture look more beautiful without human inhabitants. But I have always intended to design architecture to look more beautiful with humans present.— Toyo Ito
Born in Seoul to Japanese parents in 1941, Ito grew up in a rural part of Nagano and studied in Tokyo. From the beginning, his work has sought an equilibrium between public and private life.
In 1976, he completed White U, a horseshoe-shaped house designed for his recently widowed sister and her children. Wrapping around a courtyard, it was at once limitless and grounded, a tangible expression of grief and recovery. It was eventually demolished with Ito’s blessing.
In contrast to White U, the Sendai Mediatheque, completed in 2001, is a radically transparent building.
Ito worked with engineers to develop a tree-like structural system that allowed the library to remain open and shrouded in clear glass, despite the area’s high seismic risk. When the devastating Tohoku earthquake struck in 2011, a video of the building shouldering the quake with remarkable finesse went viral around the world.
For Ito, the earthquake exposed the flaws of an old way of building. More than 30,000 people perished in the earthquake and related tsunami, and many more were left homeless. Herded into temporary shelters, survivors complained of being feeling isolated—there was nowhere to meet their neighbours.
That prompted Ito to launch Home for All, an initiative that brought together architects and designers to build gathering spaces, kindergartens and day care centres in earthquake-ravaged areas.
Soon after completing the first structure, a homey wood-framed building with a veranda, wood stove and tatami room, Ito was still astonished at how people reacted. “Some people were so happy to see it, they were driven to tears,” he said in 2013. “In 40 years of being an architect, I’ve never had that kind of emotional reaction from a client.”
It was a microcosm of Ito’s overall approach to architecture. “There’s a limit to how much I can come up with as an individual,” he said recently during the Business of Design Week (BODW) in Hong Kong. He explained that he begins every project by creating a conceptual framework that is then filled in by the architects in his studio. “Usually it goes in a direction I would never have thought of, which is very exciting.”
Click through the slideshow below for a look back at the architect's key projects across the years
Tod’s Omotesando, Tokyo (2004). With a skin of interlocking pieces of concrete and glass, this retail flagship winks at the zelkova trees that line Omotesando Avenue. The arboreal facade creates an interesting display of light and distinguishes itself from the corporate-branded architecture that dominates much of the street.
Tod’s Omotesando, Tokyo
CapitaGreen, Singapore (2015). A rare high-rise project by an architect who professes not to like skyscrapers, this tower is marked by an abundance of greenery on the facade, as well as a rooftop windcatcher that funnels fresh air through the core of the building, lowering ambient temperatures by 2 degrees.
The Tama Art University in Tokyo features voluminous spaces created by stacking arched windows on top on one another
National Taichung theatre
Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Ehime (2011). A museum dedicated to his own work, this seeming monument to egotism actually embodies Ito’s retiring nature with its community ethos and beguiling ship-like design; it’s also a luminous educational space for children. A replica of his Silver Hut, the latter was originally built as a home in 1984.
Za-Koenji Theatre, Tokyo (2009). This angular black theatre resembles a geological formation rising over a residential area in western Tokyo. The building is perforated to give its interior a dramatic infusion of natural light, while its rock-like form creates an exaggerated sense of space in an otherwise tight setting.
Za-Koenji Theatre, Tokyo
This story was originally published in Singapore Tatler Homes June-July 2019