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Toyo Ito: The New "Real" in Architecture
Thomas Daniell
Toyo Ito 1 Toyo Ito 2
A full-size mockup of the construction system used for the Kakamigahara Crematorium
The floor of the main space is a field of undulating white dunes.
It has been almost a decade since Toyo Ito began to publicly express concern about his influence on the younger generation of Japanese architects. Ito is deservedly celebrated for his embrace of the effects of electronic and information technology on the contemporary city, his theorization of the concomitant effects on human life as a "virtual body," and of course his poetic built expressions of transparency and weightlessness. Yet in 1998, he published an essay critical of the anemic minimalism of new Japanese architecture that included this admission:

"Of course, many of these characteristics apply to my own architecture, and I am aware that due to my advocacy of lightness, ephemerality and transparency, I must bear some of the responsibility for this syndrome among my colleagues born only twenty years after me." (1)

This appeared shortly after construction had begun on the Sendai Mediatheque, the epochal project that sealed Ito's reputation as the definitive architect of the cyberspace era, yet simultaneously triggered his turn toward structural and material reality. According to the architect himself, this change in direction was caused by seeing his sketches of diaphanous, swaying webs materialize on the Mediatheque building site as enormous, rigid steel cages. His work since then is by no means a return to conventional building types, but rather the reinvigoration of a design approach that, in our cyber-saturated culture, had begun to run the risk of cliché.

The astonishing results are currently on display at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, in an exhibition aptly entitled The New "Real" in Architecture. Although one wall is devoted to a chronological history of Ito's entire body of work, the rest of the show is from the post-Mediatheque period. One room focuses on his competition-winning project for the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House, an unprecedented reconceptualization of every aspect of an opera house. Another room contains nothing but a full-size mockup of the construction system used for the Kakamigahara Crematorium, a vast undulating shell surface that seems free in form, but was realized via rigorous structural analysis -- a computer-aided, nonlinear revision of Antonio Gaudi's experiments with catenary curves and other natural geometries, achieved by Ito through close collaboration with engineer Mutsuro Sasaki. Indeed, together with the ghost of Gaudi, Sasaki is a constant presence throughout the show.

The floor of the main space is a field of undulating white dunes (visitors must remove their shoes), embedded in which are models large enough to project a sense of their intended materiality and spatiality. These are innovative and expressive constructions based on natural archetypes such as trees, mollusks, ripples, and caves, all with an overt weight and structural logic. Far more evocative than a conventional array of architectural miniatures viewed as if from a helicopter, each model has a few sunken holes around it to allow lower, more realistic sightlines. The room is bracketed by a full-size mockup showing the construction process of the Tod's Building structural walls.

One corner of the gallery contains a display of furniture items Ito designed for the Italian manufacturer Horm. For the opening of the exhibition, an incomplete Ripple bench had been brought over from Italy together with an artisan who spent the evening fastidiously hand-carving the wood, oblivious to the crowd. Toyo Ito's swerve away from his earlier surreal and immaterial visions was beautifully symbolized by the solid, heavy reality of this labor of love.

(1) Toyo Ito, "Datsu Kindaiteki Karadazo: Hihyoseinonai Jutakawa Kanoka?" in Jutaku Tokushu, No. 149 (September 1998), pp.20-24 (my translation).
Toyo Ito 3
Toyo Ito 4
The competition-winning Taichung Metropolitan Opera House
Like 

                          watching a never-ending sunset
One wall is devoted to a history of Ito's entire body of work.
Toyo Ito 5
Toyo Ito 6 Toyo Ito 7
Innovative and expressive constructions based on natural archetypes
Like 

                          watching a never-ending sunset
Models large enough to project their intended materiality and spatiality
Like 

                          watching a never-ending sunset 
Fastidiously hand-carving the Ripple bench

All photos by Thomas Daniell
Toyo Ito: The New "Real" in Architecture
Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery / http://www.operacity.jp/ag/exh77/
7 October - 24 December 2006
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