Alessandra Orlandoni - At the beginning of your career, as happens to many architects, you worked on small projects - the White U house, the Tower of Winds. Then you gradually became occupied with more complex buildings.
Today you take in a whole range of scales, from the small object, like the projects for Alessi and Horm, to huge buildings like the Mahler 4 - Block 5 in Amsterdam and the extension at the Fira de Barcelona, Montjuic-2.
Technological issues have always been an integral part of your research, but after the Sendai Mediatheque, your work seems more “techno-organic”. There’s a continuity and fluidity about it, whatever the scale. How do you manage these different scales of project?
Toyo Ito - When I do a small scale project like objects or furnishing accessories, the jump from idea to prototype is almost immediate. Things don’t take shape gradually because my idea is immediately transferable to realty, thanks also to digital prototyping.
But an architectural project holds greater complexity. The initial concept develops through the contribution of several people. So the whole thing changes and transforms, undergoing a metamorphosis. This developmental process is very important in architecture.
After the Sendai Mediatheque, I realised I wanted to develop the concept of “blurring architecture”, and work on those impalpable, intangible elements of architecture, and the complexity of information that a physical building must contain.
A.O. - The Sendai Mediatheque marked a turning point in your project development method. How much have new technologies, and in particular, 3-D simulation facilities, influenced your approach to architecture and the ability to create innovative buildings where the structure itself is an integral part of architectural design?
T.I. - The great change has taken place over the last ten years. Before, you started with the ground plan and the various elevations and sections. The process was longer and less flowing, in a certain sense, more rigid.
Looking at Japanese cartoons for kids and other TV programmes that used advanced 3D modelling, I realised that the technology used to create videogame environments could be applied to architectural design. So you could visualise space in three dimensions, study it from various angles, and view possible changes. But the sea change was for structural engineers. New design and representation technology gave them immediate visualisation of the lines of force involved in adapting a structure to an architectural concept. That means freer, more organic design. It means you can take natural shapes and turn them into architecture because solving the structural issues of curved and flowing lines has become easier, more immediate and more understandable.
I’m interested in biotechnology that investigates the human body, how the organic and inorganic relate, the contrast of light and heavy, material and evanescent. Take, for example, the Tod’s building on Omotesando boulevard that takes it shape from the form of trees and the forest. Before the advent of new technologies, that sort of synthesis would have been very unlikely because the creative process and the structural engineering process were separate entities, which to some extent hampered the freedom to design spaces where structure and walls were part of one continuous system. Before, you had to think in terms of stratified horizontal and vertical elements, each time deciding what parts should be structural and what parts infill. At the end of the day, space had to comply with structure. In a sense, structural requirements hampered design fluidity.
The computer allows the design and structural process to take place at the same time. Since you can immediately see the structural grid, you can think freely, and then check back on its feasibility. The computer allows a synthesis of layers, patterns and 3-D imaging that was not possible before.
That’s how new technologies have allowed me to follow my design concept and develop what has been defined as “free architecture”.
A.O. - Both natural and artificial light is a core architectural feature. It either grounds or dissolves the volumes you create, cancels or strengthens the architecture’s relationship with its context (I’m thinking of the Tower of Winds or the Egg of Winds). In your pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery, the weave of patterns on the white structure melds with the soft green of the lawn visible through the glass infills. That seems another characteristic of your work: harmonising contrasts.
T.I. - The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion came out of twisting a square innumerable times to generate a spiral. That led to the structure which is also the building’s skin. Altering an elementary geometrical shape has generated a physical architecture. My architecture attempts to be technological and organic at the same time. I use technology to create architectures that interact with the surrounding landscape; I want to avoid as far as possible projects that once set in place appear immobile monoliths estranged from their context.
I am trying to counter the fixity of architectures, their stolidity, with elements that give an ineffable, immaterial quality. The Tower of Winds is like a container, an oval shell made up of perforated metal panels put there to conceal the air turbine of a shopping mall. After sunset, it loses its solid physical appearance and turns into a luminous object. A metamorphosis takes place, dissolving a physical building and setting an evanescent and vibrant object in its place. It absorbs the rhythm and colours of the city and is transformed as a result. That’s what I mean when I talk of interacting with context.
A.O. - Western and Eastern cities: what’s the difference? Do you think that the Western model can be transposed and applied to eastern cities, or do you believe that the oriental city has an intrinsic character of its own that will not be forced into imported urban moulds?
T.I. - Population density in Japanese cities is very high, which is why probably they give the impression of being chaotic. They can’t be compared to European cities where distribution starts from a central core and develops outward, alternating built-up, green and commercial zones. In Japan, population density dominates the urban system. It is the overriding feature that prevents European style urban planning being applied. But that’s not at all a negative factor. It creates energy in a constant state of flux; there’s an intensity there that in European cities is more diluted and “organised”, and so less perceptible.
The intensely chaotic atmosphere is the result of a mingling of diverse activities that intertwine and interchange without any restrictions on confines. Japanese cities are a sort of melting pot, constantly on the move. And this “energy mix” holds great fascination; it reflects our times.
The role of the architect is to create architectures that are poles of attraction for people, places that exalt the characteristics of the city, are dynamic, fluid and interactive expressions of it.
A.O. - The concept behind the Sendai Mediatheque was that of a “cultural complex”, a place distributing a series of activities in a fluid, “harmonically chaotic” way that encourages interchange among the various type of user. A place that mixes rather than separates.
Functional spatial programming was laid aside in favour of interactive spatial concepts.
T.I. - The Sendai Mediatheque was based on just that concept. It attracts an average of one million visitors a year. One of the reasons for its success is, I believe, because the project was designed and implemented with
the intention of combining different activities and programmes. The Sendai Mediatheque is mainly a library with spaces added for other activities like a coffee shop, an art exhibition gallery, and audiovisual viewing rooms. It’s a parallelepiped measuring 50mx50mx35m whose structural frame - 13 intertwined tubular elements - allows the free circulation of air and light throughout the building and contains the lift shafts, plant and services. They look like natural organisms floating in space. And that gives it its technological yet primitive appearance.
The project caters for the needs of the disabled too. The mix of different activities going on inside generates “harmonic chaos”. Had we concentrated on the classical library concept, we would have narrowed the user target. By conceiving the place as a “complex of activities and functions” and not as a single-function building makes people of all ages and diverse interests come together and mix. This ‘promiscuous’ mixing of ages and categories converging on the centre at the same time produces a chaotic harmony: children watch videos in the same place where adults attend a computer workshop and college students do their research.
My intention was to develop a stimulating project to enhance and revitalise urban activities, meld them and stimulate information flows.
A.O. - The Relaxation Centre in Torrevieja, Spain is completely immersed in nature. A place designed to pamper the body, its apparently simple structure conceals highly sophisticated technologies and materials. The architecture is set in a natural park whose function and visibility will be enhanced by the new building. What, in your view, is the relationship between architecture and the human body?
T.I. - The Torrevieja Relaxation Centre’s architecture takes its cue from the coils of a shell. The human ear is also like a shell.
Although not a large building, it is a complex one that took a lot of work. The intention was to build something that was distinct from the natural environment but not estranged from it. I wanted it to seem a natural extension of the landscape, so that the architecture, although inevitably an artifice - and a complex one at that - would look like it had arisen naturally, as if it had always been there. To do this, I tried to follow the natural sweep of the land, using natural material like maple wood.
The building is designed to relate to the body and the body’s complex sensory network, not just provide it material support. Our bodies are sensory surfaces whose well-being depends on the sensations received by our five senses. This building tries to integrate all levels of human perception, and so aesthetics, function, spatial distribution have all been studied to fit harmoniously both with the natural landscape and with the complex human being.
A.O. - In Pescara, Italy, where you were awarded an honorary degree, you are developing a project for the town’s Piazza Salotto now undergoing regeneration. It’s a sculpture to be realised with experimental materials that are still under study and which will contain a red liquid. Here again the physical presence of an object dissolves in a play of changing light that creates varying reflections and transparencies with the passing hours of the day.
T.I. - Yes, it’s an urban installation designed to give a new identity and vitality to the square, make it a more interesting and attractive place for people to go to. The sculpture will be made by Italian manufacturers who are trying out particular resins to contain and preserve the liquid. Another project that blends technology and nature.
(1*) Entrance to Okawabata Rivercity 21, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 1990 - 1991
(2*) The Torrevieja authorities have promoted an emblematic project to be developed in the near future. The “Parque de Relajacion” is an
avant-garde project, the only one of its kind in Europe, designed to develop “well-being” tourism.