Part III: Architecture now and next
If you have already read Part I and II of the interview, you may have noticed that Toyo Ito’s vision for architecture is not limited/restricted by what modern architecture means to our society. He looks far beyond – or goes far back to the fundamentals. Instead of diving deep into up-to-date design/engineering details that define prestige projects today, he often talks about “remembering the Jomon era and inherent abilities of humans that modern people almost forgot.” The Jomon is the Japanese prehistoric, hunter-gatherer era (albeit surprisingly civilized), during which people obviously did not have knowledge-based disciplines such as geometry or architecture. But Ito doesn’t solely rely on modern disciplines to define his “architecture” – he embraces rudimentary endeavors by humans to construct anything meaningful in order to resiliently adapt to the surrounding environment and thrive, by taking advantage of what nature has left for them. In that sense, “architecture” for Ito may not even be just about buildings and their design; it concerns fundamental ideas/behaviors of creating something in between the humans world and nature.
In Part III, he talks how he is incorporating his philosophy into real projects, including the community revitalization projects on the island of Omishima in Western Japan.
Your works are eye-opening in many ways. How does your actual work process look like when you create something so uniquely connected to nature?
As we discussed in Part I, architecture requires a geometrical structure. But what I want to design is the kind of structure that lets us re-connect with the surrounding environment instead of isolating us from it. It takes multiple stages: when I am in the design phase, I need to rely on logic because it’s a pure brain work. I am physically detached from my project. But when construction starts and the conceptual ideas begin to transform into actual objects, the design develops into something very sensorial again. Senses such as smell or touch which are almost dormant during the design stage, suddenly are stimulated and begin to work hard again once they come face to face with real materials. Those senses become keenly activated even when choosing the wooden planks that you would use for this floor (he points to the wooden floor of the room which happens to have been renovated by his team). Obviously such a reaction from our senses is not unique to Japanese architecture, but I just wanted to emphasize that I want to design architecture that truly circles back and comes back to nature/universe.
It almost sounds like people’s senses are part of natural world, and their sensorial values play a big role in your architecture. But when modern technology isolates us from the harsh exterior environment, that damages our senses. We no longer leverage them to adjust to the environment – technology adjusts the indoor environment for us. Is that how things should work? How do you leverage technology to “connect inside and outside?”
Modern architecture often concerns efficient buildings which are insulation-heavy; they isolate the inside from the outside. I don’t agree with that approach. You know how traditional Japanese houses were open to the outside? As you can see in this place (Omishima Ikoi no Ie), they did not rely much on partitions such as thick walls and insulation. Naturally, they would not be considered energy efficient in the modern context. But it can be different now that we have pretty adept technology. For example, it’s possible to introduce a super localized heating system that only warms the areas where people are present. Even when a building comes with minimal partitions/insulation like this building, we can still achieve a “resiliently efficient” way of living by staying connected with and taking advantage of what nature offers to us. It’s just unfortunate that there’s still a lot of room for improvement in order to fully leverage state-of-the art technology. Take air conditioning – more often than not people simply set the same temperature in every single room in every single building, even when each individual has a different threshold to feel hot or cold. But we really don’t have to do this because computers today can control room temperatures to a very subtle degree. We just haven’t learned how to fully utilize the potential of new technology.
It sounds like your version of “efficient architecture” lets users define/achieve efficiency by leveraging technology.
It’s because humans have the inherent ability to take advantage of nature phenomena to feel comfortable. If you open the window to get a nice breeze, you feel good even when the room temperature is a bit too high, right? That’s our resilience. We can leverage such resilience to achieve true energy efficiency. That’s why I always hope to create an “indoor environment that feels like outdoors.” And I am not just talking about the room temperature or air conditioning. Years ago, I was involved in an exhibition at a museum. I intentionally made the floor undulate in one of the rooms, and something pretty amazing happened: kids started running spontaneously as they entered the room. If the floor had been flat, they would have listened to the instruction to stay quiet and walk slowly. But when their eyes caught the random rises and falls in the floor, they just couldn’t help jumping on them and bouncing, rolling and lying down. Nothing but pure instinct. What it means is that those little curves in the floor woke the children’s very primitive instincts as animals, and as they hopped and stepped, the moves released hibernating raw excitement. They ended up behaving much more freely and had a lot of fun. That is the kind of architecture I want to create.
Along those lines, I have a secret desire to design a concert theater in which you can even lie down to listen to the music, if that’s what you want to do. But as you know, everyone expects to sit in a comfortable chair and behave politely when attending a concert. So maybe no one will commission such a project, I guess (laugh).
The Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari opened in Omishima lsland in 2011. Ever since, you have been heavily involved in various local community revitalization activities. Omishima looks to be a very unique place for you to realize the kind of architecture as an extension of nature you have been talking, because the place still retains an almost mythological, pristine environment – although the new freeway systems that recently connected the island with the mainland is changing the dynamics in many aspects. What is your mission here?
Omishima Island has become much more accessible thanks to the freeway (Shimanami Kaido, which is, by the way, a popular destination for cyclists from around the world) that connects an otherwise pretty isolated island with regional economic hubs. It was fortunate that the island hasn’t yet been exposed to brutal economic development and its natural beauty has mostly been kept intact. But it is unfortunate that in the modern economy, preserving traditional communities intact doesn’t mean that they thrive. Young people keep leaving the island because there are not enough jobs. If nothing changes, only the older people will stay here with no viable blueprint for future generations.
The old people who have been here for their entire lives are not really enthusiastic about starting new projects. They say “We are good. We don’t need anything anymore. We are just happy even though we don’t have much money.” In the meantime, young people keep leaving because they can’t find jobs on the island. There is only one high school here, but it’s on the verge of shutting down because there are not enough students. We are trying to help so that it can stay open, but it’s a difficult situation.
The dilemma of this island is how to balance the preservation of a rich heritage with revitalization. If local people choose not to rely on economic development, or high-impact tourism to prosper (because that could damage the natural environment nor local traditions), what are the alternative options? That’s the theme we have been working on with local people, and that’s the reason why I named the current exhibition at my museum “Protecting = Creating the Sacred Island of Omishima.” We need to inherit/protect what our ancestors left to us, but can we leverage it as drivers/sources to re-create a vibrant local economy and a happier community? That’s our goal.
Could you tell us a little bit about ongoing projects?
We are trying to help/encourage young people to move onto the island and start new projects that are deeply connected to nature, such as agriculture. We have already started a vineyard (Omishim Minna-no-Winery). We helped renovate this place – (Omishima Ikoi no Ie), and also run a community place called “Minna no ie (Home-for-all).” As you can imagine, architecture here looks nothing like the buildings you see in Tokyo – the buildings/facilities will be the kind that dissolve into nature.
The projects that Ito’s team have been running on Omishima go far deeper than designing buildings; it’s almost about designing a “beyond-modern” blueprint for a resilient and self-sufficient community that is appropriately connected and interacting with nature. Deepest thanks to Toyo Ito, who was gracious to share his current thinking in such a special setting. What a priceless experience to reflect what modernism has been all about in the thick of pristine environment, from where every one of us came from. At a profound level, the message he is sending from Omishima is critically relevant as we enter critical junction of history. Stay tuned with his next action.
READ MORE ABOUT TOYO ITO’s OMISHIMA PROJECT