Sunday, 20 January 2008

Toyo Ito, architect

I interviewed Toyo Ito, the architect, on the 6th of October, 2006, at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. The interview lasted about an hour. Ito mainly used Japanese, but also used some English.

CBL: Please sit near the microphone… I’ll give you my meishi (business card).

TI: Thank you and Florian from my office. My English is not so good so he can translate. You have already seen the exhibition?

CBL: Yes, I liked the floor. I felt a little bit dangerous.

TI: Yeh? But take off shoes.

CBL: Yeh. But the holes. I was worried about falling into the holes… Anyway, let’s start with a stream of questions now. First of all, all your buildings, you seem to be trying to get away from straight lines. Do you hate straight lines?

TI: I don’t hate straight lines, but I have liked curved lines since I was child. It’s a bit like my character. When I talk when I think, it’s not in straight lines. It’s a bit curved, it’s soft, and in a way it resembles my inner character.

CBL: So, it’s a bit like David Beckham. I want to start focusing on some of the buildings, because that makes it much more concrete, rather than abstract. With this one here [Taichung Opera House]. This is a very interesting building. When I first saw a picture of it, I thought it looked like a large piece of cheese. Do you feel insulted by such a comparison?

TI: When you look at a cheese, the holes in the cheese are all compartments. They don’t go through. But in this building it’s the opposite. All the holes go through, like in a cave. There’s a continuity. And if you think about the human body as well, from the mouth all the way down to the asshole, there’s a continuity. It’s a cave.

CBL: This is this idea of Tubism. Are you a Tubist?

TI: I’m very aware of the movement in the 60s – the tubist movement – but in my case I’d rather refer to it in terms of a network. It’s tubes of a network. In that sense I’m a new Tubist.

CBL: A Neo-tubist!

TI: It’s a bit like the human intestines, where there’s an ambiguity between the inside and outside, and that inside/outside dichotomy is blurred and that’s what I’m interested in.

CBL: So, blurring the border line between different areas and functions, yeh?

TI: Yeh.

CBL: Yeh? I noticed that most of the big architectural projects these days, they have to serve a multiplicity of functions to actually be successful. So, for example, you’ll see some of the plans, and you’ll see many people doing many different things all in one space. For example, at the Taichung Opera House, you have a garden here, you have different theatres, you have some offices, all together. So, your style of architecture is very suitable to crowd in together many different functions.

TI: Well, basic answer yes. If you look at 20th century functionalism, where functions were clearly separate and there was a strict order between establishing all functions separately. Now 21st century is more of a condition where living and working, playing and working, they are all intermingled. You play while you work. You do your living while you work. So, in this sort of confused condition of contemporary city life, I feel like I want to bring that into my architecture.

CBL: This creates a condition of overlapping functions, but that can sometimes also create problems, I think, additional stresses. It raised the level of complexity. One example I can think of – at home we have a dining room – and my wife likes to keep that all nice and pretty, and I like to use that as a kind of office, so we’re always arguing about this point. So, when you have an overlap of functions that can also create stresses and problems can’t it?

TI: Well I think what you described as a conflict and stress… There are people who might feel like that, but I, personally, I am very interested in what I call a ‘loose condition’ and I have gained confidence in that concept ever since the Sendai Mediatheque. And traditional conventional libraries, or places like that, have confined rooms where you do your reading and your research. We wanted to break that up, and instead of that, instead of providing secluded rooms, we provide places. Now the self chooses whatever places he or she wishes. It’s a bit like in the city or in a park. For example, young and old people do as they like, share places, they find places they look for places. For example old people might be in places where young people are, mixed together, and therefore the old people look at the fashion of the young people and become more fashionable. Or a mother with her child needs not worry, needs not be in a child room all day. She can do her stuff without worrying about her children because they are in the vicinity. They can share the same place. And in that sense, this giving places rather than rooms has become very meaningful for me.

CBL: I would imagine that for this concept to work in practice, it would depend on everybody sharing quite similar values of correct behaviour and basically being very respectful of each other. If I apply this concept, for example, to my hometown, which is a town in Scotland… I imagine that mixing the young people with the old people together could cause also problems, for example there would be a rise in bag snatchings and muggings.

TI: In the Sendai Mediatheque, if we look back at that, there are of course homeless people also who come into the building, but, in general, there are a type who come and share the building, and the interesting thing is that these people create the architecture. They sort of establish the type of building it is becoming.

CBL: You mean the atmosphere?

TI: Yes, the people who come.

CBL: So the atmosphere is the architecture?

TI: Yes. Because people are sharing our huge places, it becomes like a little bit of looking at each other and thereby also controlling who comes in. Whether that it is good or bad is another thing, but people create the atmosphere, the character of the building. But, looking at the opera, there are of course people who come to watch the opera, but another thing, another dimension is the communication that these people establish, that different people establish, in a sense. But also there’s a Japanese saying that kind attract kind.

CBL: Birds of a feather flock together. But I still get the impression that the conditions of the society would have a big impact on whether a particular building would be successful or not. The Mediateque probably works very well in Sendai, but if you put it, say, somewhere in Los Angeles, it might be a complete disaster because there are all these underlying tensions in the society that you don’t have in Sendai.

TI: Well, I agree with what you say. Sendai was possible because it was Sendai and if that building had been for Tokyo I would have planned a different building. And in the case of the Opera, it’s a place where there are 2000 or at maximum 3000 people gathered for that moment, and it’s not too many. It’s a phenomenon of the contemporary community where people gather together for that moment – it’s like football – and become one community. And that community is created for that particular instant and then they dissolve again.

CBL: What local factors did you take into account with the Taichung Opera House?

TI: For the opera in Taichung there are basically two local factors or two scenarios. One is that from all over the country of Taiwan, people come and create a community for that moment, and the second one is that when there are no concerts on, on weekdays or normal days, then it becomes a place in the park for the people of Taichung.

[The walls of the room rattled slightly but noticeably]

CBL: That’s the dynamic forces moving through the building. I want to ask you about the buildings, like TODs and Mikimoto. Well, basically, they are stunning building and very impressive, especially TODS. Mikimoto is also very nice. Basically, the shapes of the buidlings are very rectangular and this is of course necessary because of the cost of land. You can’t experiment so much on the shape of the building so you’re forced to work more on the skin of the bldg. Is that right?

TI: For TODs, as you say rightly, this has been a very difficult job for an architect, because it’s a difficult site. And it’s got a very narrow access to the street. It’s an L-shaped plot. Surface became the main issue of the project, our main focus for tackling the project. There have been a lot of projects where surface was there, surface only, but we wanted to move away from surface for surface only, towards surface out of structure or structural principles become the surface. So, there’s a different logic behind that, which is changing the surface out structural principles.

CBL: So, changing the skin also changed what’s inside very much.

TI: The surface is not a surface that is on the outside only. The interior of the surface is the same as the outside, and you can see that in the shop, for instance, where the surface becomes part of the shop, changes the shop configuration, or, as you move up to the party space on the 6th floor, it is also characterized by the surface. So, the interior and the exterior experience of the surface is the same.

CBL: So it’s like a tattoo that goes all the way through… I think you’ve got a very original and innovative way of working with space. You see space in a very different way from most people and I’m just wondering how much this is possibly connected to the fact that you were born in Dalian, which is a place that no longer exists as a Japanese colony. Your birthplace is somewhere else. So this might play some role in freeing your mind from conventional ideas of space.

TI: Because my father was in Korea before the war, but when I was two and a half years old we moved back to my father’s home place in the country in Japan. So my experiences as a thinking being start in Suwa in Nagano Prefecture, but I haven’t really thought about that but since I’m being asked now, maybe due to that fact that I was a bit like an outsider in the village, I was – the family was – somebody who came from the outside and was in that village… Maybe growing up with that unconsciously in mind sort of shaped me, but I haven’t thought about it until now.

CBL: Please think about it some more, and maybe we’ll find out. Well thank you very much.

TI: Thank you…

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