It's about time. The fact that the Pritzker Prize did not go to Toyo Ito, Hon. AIA, before has long puzzled me, as well as many other observers of architecture. Perhaps his work is not as immediately alluring as some of the more slithering or pumped-up forms that have won prizes in the past, and perhaps it was not easy to imitate, which is a mark of the kind of influence that this prize distinguishes.
Ito has, however, been one of the greatest masters of form-making for the last three decades. Whatever the prize jury’s thinking, I am glad they finally awarded him this accolade. What interests me about Ito’s work is that it has made the argument of form by almost disappearing, though neither in the evanescent manner of high, Miesian Modernism, nor in the tense mode of his one-time employee Kazuo Sejima (who won the Pritzker with Ryue Nishizawa in 2010).
Instead, he has turned his structures into assertions of that physical notion implying both standing up and connection by a process of spreading. His architecture has, over the years, turned more and more into webs, tissues, sponges, and porous membranes of various sorts. In so doing, he has argued for architecture as a filter that drinks urban life in, whether literally, as in some of his public buildings, or in terms of its climate, as in his early Yokohama Wind Tower. It also sucks in physical forces, most famously in the 2001 Sendai Mediatheque, which became famous for its ability to withstand a major earthquake through its open, torqued column-webs—long after I had learned to admire it on a visit there for the way in which it became a crystalline magnet for that city’s social and intellectual life.
That does not mean that his work is always ephemeral, which is what distinguishes it from a generation or two of extreme minimalists influenced by his early work. In his later projects, the web or sponge is as likely to be a monumental concrete façade whose seemingly random pattern is one we cannot quite understand, but that makes the building sit with confidence, as with Mikimoto Ginza, of 2011, in a confused neighborhood. Ito maintains the "thingness" of his work, using it not to assert monumentality, but to focus and clarify the social reality in which his buildings appear.
In 2006, I was on the jury for a new stadium in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I agreed to participate with some reluctance, as I wondered whether you really could do anything worthwhile with such a spectacle palace at a huge scale. (Though a visit to Hitoshi Abe’s 2000 stadium in Sendai, which I saw at the same time as the Mediatheque, gave me hope). Most of the entrants, in fact, produced schemes that delighted in structural bravura and created a huge glob of space separated from the city. Ito’s scheme was the only one that, with one simple move, opened up the stadium and the type by unfurling one end of the building’s canopy and extending it out into the street. Not only was the stadium design elegant and precise in its use of structure, emphasizing the activity within instead of itself, but it also invited the city to participate in the spectacle. It was a gesture typical of Ito’s work, but a radical alternative that I was happy I helped convince the rest of the jury was the right one.
Not all of Ito’s work is as breathtaking. He is at his best in complex sites and with programs that invite the framing of social activity. An office building in a business park in Amsterdam, the 2005 Mahler, however, is a box with few redeeming qualities. It was when I used to drive by that structure with regularity that I was reminded that architecture as the making of solitary boxes may have reached its limits. Toyo Ito, however, has managed to extend those limits just a little bit further, and for that opening alone he deserves this prize.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.
Read ARCHITECT Magazine's complete coverage of Toyo Ito's 2013 Pritzker Prize.
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