The Not-So-Pleasing New Face of “Modern”
For decades, architect Toyo Ito has been leading the industry as a trailblazer, exploring new opportunities of urban living by translating the “modern” in a unique way no one else attempted. Especially in the 70’s and 80’s, his works reflected the new, even eccentric potential of the rapidly growing urban environment in which new cultural experiments were being created everyday by people who were freed from a variety of technological/social restrictions. While he always had reservations in fully accepting how things were developing, at least Ito’s works back then offered fresh perspectives and new ways to relate to society that emerged from exciting collisions/serendipities between the “modern” and the natural environment that the “modern” was trying to overcome.
But as we wade towards the middle of the 21th century, things are taking an unexpected twist. The “modern” went too far, says Ito in his recent book “「建築」で日本を変える (meaning to transform Japan by leveraging architecture)”, Shueisha Publishing, 2016. What we are seeing today is the chilling impact of the modern economic system that became an overwhelmingly powerful efficiency-maximizing machine. Throughout the world, the machine is swiftly converting any unique-looking cities and urban areas into sleek but highly standardized and uniform concrete jungles for the sake of gains in efficiency. It is as if every city on the planet is becoming completely detached from the underlying environment, artificially formatted using a universally applicable exe. file that was proven to be the most efficient.
In such a living environment, say Ito, “individuals are confined in safe, clean but overly standardized spaces defined by an almost endless grid structure.” It no longer matters if you are in Tokyo, Dubai or Sao Paulo, or if you are on the 2nd floor or 50th floor. You are shielded from the surroundings, enclosed in a sterilized space that looks exactly the same no matter where you are: you live in a mass-produced “freezer.”
“I was increasingly disillusioned by large urban projects,” continues Ito in the book. “They no longer excited me because I felt that architecture was just serving the agenda of large companies that wanted to celebrate and accelerate economic efficiency. Architects were no more than a cool brand name, rather than a partner with whom local community could explore new opportunities and foster organic relationships.”
Ito’s New Ambition to Go Beyond the “Modern”
Ito believes that such projects cannot shape our hope/future, nor help us design our own happiness. So he is shifting his focus to small, rural and local projects to explore the alternate potential in which economic principals do not dictate everything he does. As cities and urban areas have become well-packaged “industrial products,” rural areas are the only place that allow us to step back and re-imagine our philosophy and creed without being involved in or interrupted by the race for economic efficiency. As he worked to help the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011 – most of them were fishermen, farmers and people who lived in small coastal towns for generations embraced by nature – he knows that rural areas still retain locally unique values that are indigenous to the specific geographic formation, micro climate and resources that harnessed unique history that often goes back more than several centuries. Ito believes it is critical to preserve those values before they are all gone. Those values are much more important than futurist-looking buildings with intricate details because they are the foundation of our pride and happiness.
He has established four critical pillars in re-imagining his architectural philosophy by working in rural areas:
- Restore a healthy relationship with nature
- Review what each community can offer leveraging unique local assets
- Nurture local heritage and culture so that we can pass them on to the next generation
- Re-design community centers and hubs that play a critical role in fostering people networks
The Omishima Project
Ito is actively engaged in local projects around the country. For example, “Minna no ie (Home-for-All)” – a disaster relief project that started for the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami victims – project is one of his recent achievements surrounding unique local values of remote areas.
Another notable project is under development on a small island called Omishima, which is one of the 3,000 islands scattered in the Seto Naikai Inland Sea located in the Western Japan not to far from Kyoto and Osaka.
Located on the western side of the Seto Naikai, bridging the mainland and the Shikoku (the smallest island of the four main lands in Japan), the Omishima has been long regarded as an “island of deities,” the site of the Oyamazumi Jinja, one of the most prestigious shrines in Japan founded in the 6th century to celebrate the deities of the mountains, oceans and war. (Regional military leaders fought in the Seto Naikai for more than thousand years since it was a strategically important hub)
The reason why Omishima has become an island of deities is difficult to explain in words, but you will understand it right away if you visit the place. There is no doubt that the island has a special power – maybe it’s because so many natural elements are condensed in such a small area. You simply feel the intensity. Ito describes his experience when he first visited the place: “I immediately felt the potential of the land. It was as if I heard vividly the voices of spirits that were coming from under the ground.”
Such a natural aura was so powerful that the island has been attracting people’s respect for thousands of years. As early as 594 A.C., the ancient Japanese established the Oyamazuki Jinja on the island as one of the most prestigious shrines in the country. Located at the bottom of the Washigato Zan (the mountain of the eagle head), the shrine celebrates the deities of the mountains, oceans and (maritime) war.
During its long, prestigious history, important people donated monumental items. Today the Oyamazumi Shrine maintains many registered National Treasures and important cultural properties, including ancient armors, swords, architecture and sculptures. Such historic intensity is noticeable – you can feel it even before you see it. The area is quiet but feels dense as if the ancient gods still live in the air. It is quite an experience.
It is eye-opening to be reminded that people placed everything very carefully before the modern era. Religious facilities were built only where it was completely appropriate and necessary. The Omishima was chosen as home for a powerful shrine probably not only because it was blessed with natural aura. It was also because it was ideally located in between the human world (the populous mainland) and wild nature that was out of peoples’ hands (Japanese ancient deities were predominantly believed to be natural elements). This perfect location and size kept intact Omishima’s natural assets and religious importance, while making the local community vibrant thanks to the worshippers who came to the island from surrounding regions. The island was a celebrated place shared by gods and people. (Such a place is also called “聖地 (sacred place)”.)
But then, the “modern” changed the dynamics of this sacred island. As technology and society advanced, natural deities started to lose their importance because people no longer needed them. In the meantime, modern transportation changed the way worshippers visited Omishima. Although they used to hang out and spend money in the local community, today a tourism bus takes the worshippers straight to the shrine, who stay there only for a couple of hours. Once finished praying, they hop on the bus again and take off. Since Omishima lacked major industries, it started to shrink as it lost tourist income. Today there are only about 5,900 people living on the island, most of whom are old because there are not enough jobs on the island to keep young generations.
The Omishima Lifestyle Laboratory
Ito came to know Omishima through local business mogul Atsuo Tokoro, who asked him to design an annex to the museum he built on the island in 2004. Ito started to visit the island, and soon fell in love with its beauty. His project with Tokoro had developed to become the Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari and when it opened in 2011, he became heavily invested in this “sacred island.” The museum became his lab to pursue his new endeavors – to imagine and design a new future for architecture and the local community without being disturbed by super-demanding modern economy.
When Ito saw that the local population, especially the younger generation was gradually shrinking, he was determined that a more comprehensive, wider-scale approach would be needed in order to preserve Omishima’s precious natural beauty, rich heritage and culture AND transform it with new values. He believes that it’s critical to offer new values so that the local community can thrive in a self-fulfilling way and pass its assets to future generations.
Ito launched the “Omishima Lifestyle Laboratory” as part of his NGO “Initiative for Tomorrow’s Opportunities in Architecture.” It is a series of organic workshops involving architects, designers, carpenters, plasterers and the experts in non-architecture business areas. Although many of them live in Tokyo, they often visit Omishima to implement projects to revitalize the local community. Some even moved to the island to run their own businesses or projects. The Laboratory has five major goals:
1. Revitalize agriculture and pass it on to the next generation
As farmers on the island are getting older, they are abandoning their farms. The Laboratory launched several projects to explore new ways to sustain/promote locally grown vegetables and produce.
2. Make “Omishima Ikoi-no-Ie” a vital hub for the area
The Omishima Ikoi-no-Ie is an accommodation in a renovated elementary school, located on the southern coast of the island. The Laboratory is helping this renovation project and is planning on adding a BBQ hut and re-organizing the court yard in 2018 so that the facility can be used by more people and organizations. (see below)
3. Convert abandoned houses into model homes leveraging renewable energy
There are hundreds of abandoned houses on Omishima. Since the climate is mild, many of them could be renovated with decent amount of investment by leveraging locally available renewable biomass, solar or wind energy. The Laboratory is working on model homes for the people interested in moving to the island.
4. Re-imagine transportation and restore the Oyamazumi Shrine “sando”
Modern transportation system does not address the needs of a small island like Omishima. The Laboratory is working with Yamaha to realize a small-scale transportation system based on small mobility vehicles that fit the small island with an aging population. The Laboratory also envisions bringing back visitors to the Oyamazumi Shrine “sando” by making the system tourist-friendly.
5. Design the future of the island with local high school students
As the younger population keeps decreasing, Omishima is on the verge of losing its local high school. The Laboratory is helping local students work on various projects so that they can learn ways to imagine/design their own future on the island.
The Local Projects
The Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, Imabari is located on a cliff at the western side of the island that commands a stunning view. It opened in 2011 not only to showcase Ito’s past works, but also to become a hub/lab for young architects and local people who want to discuss the future of architecture and work with Ito to implement local community re-vitalization projects.
The museum consists of the “Steel Hut” and the “Silver Hut” (the unit Ito originally designed as the house for his own family). The Steel Hut hosts exhibitions (the current exhibition is “Protecting = Creating the Sacred Island of Omishima (through June, 2019)). The Silver Hut functions as a “war room” in which people get together to plan/implement various activities and host events. (Read more about the Museum)
The Omishima Ikoi-no-Ie is an accommodation in a renovated former elementary school that had to shut down in 1986 when the shrinking local community no longer had enough children to keep the school open. As you can see in the pictures, it is a beautiful wooden building that stands next to the clear blue ocean.
As it sits right next to the “Ken Iwata Mother and Child Museum, Imabari City” designed by Toyo Ito, the owners have come to know Ito and his staff. They were suggested that the place should apply for local revitalization funding for further renovation. With the help from Ito’s Omishima Life Style Laboratory, the place went through a major renovation – much of which was done by Laboratory’s members who volunteered their time and professional skills – and re-opened in April 2018 with new features. The vibes of the place will make you re-discover your fond, old memories and emotions from childhood.
Omishima is blessed with a relatively dry, mild, Mediterranean-style climate, so people traditionally grew citrus, especially tangerines. But as cheaper imports started to dominate the market, local people found it difficult to compete and started abandoning their citrus orchards. Finding it a lost opportunity, the Omishima Lifestyle Laboratory leased some of the abandoned orchards and converted them to vineyards to produce original wine. Yusuke Kawata, who’ve learned wine making at different locations throughout Japan, moved from the mainland to run the vineyard. Since its inception in 2015, the wine making is making a steady progress. In September 2018, they just celebrated the third year of harvesting and the second year of winemaking to get ready for full production. “What’s unique about the Omishima wine is its aroma,” declares Kawada proudly.