Architecture, by definition, lives a world of big money. Buying land. Commissioning, then giving rein to, while reining in the designer. Doling out fees for structural engineers, HVAC technicians, lighting consultants, work permits. Excavating. Selecting, procuring, shipping various building materials to the site. Paying construction workers, site overseers, project managers. It takes a lot of cash.
So when big money, artistic accomplishment, and the public good coincide, it’s time to celebrate. Smile, then, at the awarding of this year’s Pritzker Prize to Toyo Ito, the seventy-one-year-old Japanese architect who hit his stride in 2001 with the completion of the fabulously vitrine Mediatheque in Sendai. The building represents a 21st-century reinterpretation of the public library, housing books, film and video archives and viewing booths, the ubiquitous accessories of digital media, as well as a bookstore, café, and art gallery. That the announcement comes this week is especially fitting: it’s the two-year anniversary of the 3.11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that ravaged that city and the surrounding region without felling Ito’s masterpiece.
In Sendai and two superb follow-up buildings, the Tama Art University Library near Tokyo and the National Stadium of Sports Affairs Council in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Ito takes architectural motifs and schemas one would have thought well-nigh exhausted, brilliantly reshaping them by concentrating on how each story’s floor plans relate to one another in three-dimensional space. Architects call this a building’s section, as if a cleaver slices a building top to bottom, to reveal how the spaces relate to one another, bottom to top.
In Sendai, Ito took the conventional 20th century motif of stacked floor plates supported internally by a regular grid of columns, and transformed it into an internally varied, spatially unified, and impressively dynamic, glass-enclosed public monument. He did so by knocking the structural columns supporting the floor plates off the grid this way and that, and by transforming them into biomorphically shaped, bulging and contracting lattice-wrapped hollow tubes to create structural supports of unusual seismic strength and flexibility that multitask as light shafts, stairwells, and more.
At the Tama Art University Library, Ito reconsidered the venerable Roman tradition. Roman masonry arches are heavy, muscular. They illustrate their transfer of a building’s compressive loads from sky to ground, and when they cross one another to span and enclose interior spaces, they form arch systems deployed along the predictable grid. At the Tama Library, Ito deploys, skews, and subverts the roman arch motif in multiple ways. Arches that seem almost impossibly thin are constructed not in the traditional, block-on-block manner; instead they are cut from thin steel plates, then surfaced with finished concrete. The spans of these arches are not semi-circular but elliptical, varying in dimension from a body-hugging five feet to a community-embracing 52 feet wide. And these arches are deployed not on a regular grid but along irregularly curving lines, creating highly varied interior spaces, some tight, acutely angled; others expansively oblique. Perched atop a grassy hill, the first floor of the Library contains a cafeteria serving the entire campus population, and its ground level floor slopes upward, following the topography of the hill on which the building sits.
All this tampering with structure, with section, with historical precedent—what’s Ito’s point? These buildings manifest his important, even visionary realization that contemporary architecture must be ever more, and in better ways attuned to two complex dimensions common to all human experience, the body on the one hand, and nature on the other. Whether you’re in Japan, Taiwan, London, or Barcelona, whether you are Japanese, Taiwanese, British or Spanish Basque, you live, because we all live, in a body, and you move, because we all move, along pathways and through spaces, upon the ground. Ito told Nicolai Ourosoff in 2009: “I sometimes feel we are losing an intuitive sense of our own bodies . . . I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body.” And in the last decade, Ito more and more frequently has spoken of the dynamic, fluid systems of nature, which grow and flourish in patterns that are extremely complicated and variable. Ito is trying to develop a compositional and structural aesthetic that will, as he puts it, engage the human body sensorially, and, as he put it in his Forces of Nature, “bring buildings closer to their surroundings and the environment.”
Ito’s artistic transformations of traditional architectural motifs draw upon our experience of nature, bring us closer to the site’s environs, and anchor us in the body, the zero-degree coordinates of human experience in the built world. The patterned complexity of the Sendai and Tama Art University interiors resembles the patterned complexity found in nature, which keeps us exploring, looking, prospecting, finding places to settle in and places to survey the social and environmental scene. Tama’s elliptical arches frame individual bodies and social groups, creating pockets of spaces where people can make their own nests, while leaving the overall spatial organization open enough so that you can always glance around to see what else is going on. Tama’s curving banks of arches direct users’ movement patterns through space. Sendai’s lattice-covered tubes seem to float upward through the building like branches of trees, waving in the wind. And so on, in dozens of ways.
Evolving over the last two decades, Ito’s artistic project is such that it also produced built experiments with less fortunate experiments. Just as not every natural landscape, and not every body, qualifies as beautiful, some of Ito’s compositions, like Tokyo's Za-Koenji Public Theatre or the Mikimoto Ginza 2, are less than wonderful. Never mind. For an architect, producing even a handful of masterpieces makes him more than deserving of veneration. That Ito is developing an architectural vision that both has and should clear a path for tomorrow’s architects and buildings—now, that man deserves a prize.