March 16, 2022
For someone as highly acclaimed and awarded as Toyo Ito—who is the recipient of The Royal Gold Medal from The Royal Institute of British Architects; The 22nd Praemium Imperiale in Honor of Prince Takamatsu; The Pritzker Architecture Prize; The UIA Gold Medal, to name a few—one would think he might be hurried in his replies during interviews. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What we found on the other side of the screen was a deeply thoughtful man whose lifetime of achievements has been mainly about the betterment of society and the future. His contributions towards educating children and creating public architecture for the masses show that he cares about giving back to the community, instilling hope and maintaining that sense of awe and creative spark in the next generation that they may coexist harmoniously with Nature. Ito advocates designing for people without tearing apart Nature; it is about going with the flow and shape of materials to express strength without force; and creating spaces beyond limited boundaries—for the future is fluid, not fixed.
Toyo Ito with Julia Li, interpreter, during the Zoom interview
CL: Thanks for joining us and for taking the time to do this interview. My first question is about new architecture ideas: what do you think is the most important emerging idea shaping architecture at the moment?
JL: To him, there are mainly two things that are really driving architecture. Number one is the natural environment, which is facing a lot of danger currently, especially with the global warming situation and also the CO2 emissions. He thinks it’s something that architecture cannot neglect anymore. And number two is how we could go beyond Modernism, because he thinks that there must be something bigger than Modernism or architecture that is driven by the global economy.
CL: Out of those whom Mr Toyo Ito has mentored so far, has anyone or any idea surprised him?
JL: He is talking about recent competitions in Japan where one of the important aspects is how to develop designs with the users and people who will be using the building. So, one of these architects is Akihisa Hirata who used to work for our company. He has his own firm now, and he tries hard to develop this methodology of design, together with the local citizens and users. And this surprised Toyo Ito; he is very interested in what [Hirata] has to offer in the years to come.
CL: What do you think the field of architecture, be it education or new architecture ideas, should focus more on currently? It could be pedagogy, professional development, even regulations and so on.
JL: [Ito] has his own private architectural school, and he has a class that teaches young children aged 10 to 12. He thinks that when kids are at that age, it’s very interesting, because they still have a lot of imagination, a lot of visions and dreams. At the same time, they are beginning to think about things in a logical way. So, this period from ages 10 to 12 encapsulates a lot of capabilities and possibilities for children. Thus, his school teaches these kids architecture and how to think about architecture. But once they grow older and go to university, they tend to be influenced by the current pedagogy that makes them lose their vision or imagination that they would have had when they were younger. So, he wants to develop a way of teaching that would allow them to still be able to dream and imagine in a way they did when they were younger, and not forget about their visions.
Image by Ito Juku Image by Ito Juku
CL: Yes, that’s important. Sometimes we lose what we think of creatively when we were younger after we attend school as we slowly undergo the system of education. So, education has become ‘conformative’ rather than ‘creative’.
DM: I think that young children still have lots of hope for the world that are so refreshing for us to hear. Can you share with us some of the children’s hopes for the future in their architecture visions?
JL: For example, one of the projects that he did with the kids was to think of what a house could be like, or what is a house to the kids? What is a living space? So, one of the topics that he has picked was to design, for example, a house that floats on water. The kids would propose something like a series of islands that are also houses on their own—the houses become like boats that always move around. They’re very creative. And when they propose things that are so free and so imaginative, he thinks that both he and the kids have something in common, i.e., in terms of concepts and visions of what makes a good space. For example, some kids would propose to have a portion of the house to be floating on water, while another portion of the house is immersed in water, so that people who are living in that house can communicate with the fishes and other sea organisms.
CL: Thank you so much. Maybe now it’s time to dive into the question about the Home-for-All project: has there been any specific learnings from that project that have been applied to other project types?
TY: 少し前に今治で開催された「公共建築はみんなの家である- Creating Public Architecture as a Home-for-All」という展覧会で、私たちが設計した公共建築をいくつか展示したのですが、その際に施設を利用する人たちのインタビューも行いました。対象の建築のプログラムは図書館や劇場などでしたが、本を読みに行ったり演劇を観に行くという為だけに足を運んでいるわけではなく、人とのコミュニケーションを取るために通っているという声が多く聞かれました。そういう意味では、私達が設計する公共建築は「みんなの家」の大きい版であると言えるのではないかと考えます。
JL: So, we have been doing a small exhibition recently of rather large public architecture that we have built—some of them over 10 years ago or more. The exhibition is not really about the architectural space itself. We interviewed the people who used those spaces, and we collected all their comments and the ways they have used the space. We realised that most of the people were not there for the function of the space.
For example, for one of the two libraries and two halls that were selected to be exhibited, people who went there every day were not there just to read books, nor were they there just to attend concerts. Rather, they already feel like they belong to the space; they want to go there and be a part of the community. So, we feel that there’s a connection between Home-for-All and the users of such public architecture—that public architecture is actually a large Home-for-All; the two are connected to each other.
Exhibition on Creating Public Architecture as a Home-for-All: Steel Hut, Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture in Imabari. Image by Katsuhiro Aoki Silver Hut + Steel Hut, Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture. Image by Kai Nakamura (note: This image was photographed in 2011)
CL: That’s wonderful; how long-lived some of these projects are. They might not have started in the design stage to be for a long-term use, but over time, the communities themselves have taken on the use of the space and called it their own.
In Asia, and especially Japan, there are a lot of natural disasters to deal with. And one of our questions relates to you having done post-disaster relief shelters—do you think such shelters could be adapted to very dense and busy urban spaces, in the context of the health crisis now? Or how would they fit in a small-scale neighbourhood? Or let’s say, in the context of a busy city like Singapore, where it’s pretty dense and built up. Do you think such a refuge or shelter could be used for the pandemic or maybe future crises?
JL: Modern architecture always has a function that is tied back to the building. So, a library is a library; a hall is a hall. But from what he just described public architecture as a Home-for-All, he thinks that the function should not be so well-defined. Especially in a very dense city, it’s important to propose something that has a mixed use, so that it can function as a Home-for-All.
Let’s say there’s a complex that combines multiple uses and not so well-defined functions, that means a lot of people would come to just stop by and read some books, or they would stop by for coffee or something. All these different activities could overlap one another in the same space, and this would help with communication, even during disaster time, because everything is in such close proximity—people can help one another more easily. Even when it’s not disaster time, people can still interact with one another and foster a sustainable community. So, that’s what he has thought of, especially since this COVID-19 crisis.
Editor’s note: We would like to thank Julia Li for facilitating in this interview as an interpreter. Although her answers are not exact translations of Ito’s replies, they serve well as important context to his answers. The Japanese transcription was done by Chika Muto of Neoplus Sixten Inc.