8 August – 8 September 2001
Curated by Andrew Barrie
Joint project with City Gallery, Wellington, and New Zealand Institute of Architects
Since the mid 1970s, Toyo Ito has been regarded as one of the world's most innovative and influential architects, creating new concepts for life in modern cities, searching for an architecture appropriate to our electronic, image-oriented consumer society. His Tower of Winds (1986) and Egg of Winds (1991) are interactive landmarks whose design seeks to represent the invisible electronic world as a parallel to our physical environment. Ito describes his latest project, the Mediatheque (media and culture centre) in Sendai, northern Japan, as the culmination of his quest to fuse the physical and virtual worlds. Its unusual function and radical steel-tube structural system have forged new approaches to spatial definition, building services, circulation, and construction. Its floors hang on penetrating conduiting masts. Just opened, the Mediatheque is innovative at every level. The centre piece of Blurring Architecture will be a spectacular four-channel data projection, where building plans and schematics for the Mediatheque are overlaid and animated, with a soundtrack by electronic composer Ryoji Ikeda.
Two operations are proceeding simultaneously at opposite extremes: one on the construction site, the other on the computer screen. The site is filled with steel; countless slabs and pipes are suddenly introduced into the middle of the urban space. Gradually they are being assembled to become one massive steel sculpture. The sound of dozens of welders echoes from morning until night as sparks fly from their torches, and the steel dust dyes the air like smoke belched from a chimney. This work seems too primitive for a construction site in the computer age; bringing things into evidence seems like a violent act. Meanwhile, innumerable drawings flow across an enormous screen: ground plans, side plans, cross-sections, exploded views, facilities plans, details; plans abandoned when designs changed, plans being studied; a panoply of two-dimensional architectural signs. Superimposed, they appear and vanish by turns, flowing ceaselessly. They seem to follow the trail of the designing process. This space has nothing to do with things, being constituted only by the manipulation of signs folding over and into each other without end. Blurring Architecture is architecture that unsettles. By pursuing two kinds of architecture at once I am attempting to blur the field of architecture; in one instance by making things visible to the extreme, and in the other by purely spatialising the flow of signs.
Media Architecture < > Architectural Media
Throughout his career Toyo Ito has created buildings characterised by flowing spaces, the satiny sheen of aluminium, the cloudy translucence and crystalline reflectivity of glass, and the dematerialising qualities of light. Through his sleek, seemingly effortless buildings, and his writings, he has consistently worked to develop an architecture appropriate to our increasingly electronic, image-oriented culture.
Ito has often written that the human body now exists on two levels: the real and the virtual. "Each of us today possesses two bodies: the primitive body that a human being has always possessed and the virtual body that has come into being with the spread of the media. The former seeks the beautiful light and fresh breeze found in nature." The other body, which responds to the electronic environment, might be called "a media-like body in search of information." (1) The relationship between these two bodies is constantly shifting. Ito argues that we connect to architecture and the city through both of them. Architects, he says, must assist in their re-integration; buildings and cities must provide for both the virtual body and the primitive one.
The design competition for the Sendai Mediatheque project, a public building for the arts and culture oriented toward electronic media, was ideally suited to Ito's ideas. Once Ito's simple, yet innovative, winning scheme was made public - before the design was even complete - it became central to the discourse about architecture's relationship to the virtual. Paradoxically, Ito's scheme to reunite the virtual and real bodies of its users developed a dual existence. An idealised vision circulated in the world's architectural media, while a physical structure was slowly pieced together in northern Japan.
The 1995 Mediatheque competition brief called for a complex containing an art gallery, library and audiovisual centre. The competition organisers requested proposals that were not bound by convention. Ito's scheme "was not concerned with formal expression" (2) but was prototypical and conceptual. An early schematic drawing demonstrates his conception of a building made of three elements: floor plates, structural tubes, and skin. In this sketch the floors are horizontal lines set at irregular heights; the tubes are transparent lattices snaking through the building; the vertical glass skin hangs from the floor plates. An annotation states Ito's intention: "to express the three elements - the flat slab, the columns that resemble seaweed, and the screen of the facade - in their purest form." The competition model pulled the sketch out into three dimensions, suggesting an entirely plausible building, but without the mass and opacity normally expected of architecture.
Turning the scheme into a physical structure presented huge challenges. Ito would battle to remain true to his concept, labouring under the weight of growing expectations. His problem was not that his idea was so radical, but that it was so clear. The competition model omited many aspects crucial to buildings. The complications involved in realising the scheme risked clouding its crystalline purity. A later presentation model acknowledged this; walls, ducts, stairs, furniture and even people were shown as either translucent or transparent.
Ito is aware of the gap that exists between architects' ideas and their constructed buildings. "A real building can only be an imperfect model, an approximation of ones architectural ideas." Ito understands the skill required to transfer concepts into buildings and the limitations on doing so. "Concepts can be communicated only if an effort is made… to eliminate imperfections and to make the model as pure as possible." (3)
Ito's purification process generated experiments and alternative solutions. Dozens of layout variations were produced for each floor. Ito continually tested his design against the ideas and images which generated it. In 1999, midway through construction, Ito worked with computer graphics firm 000/Studio to create Blurring Architecture. This large scale video installation presented sequences generated from simple plan, elevation and section drawings. These animations created an enhanced perception of space: a slow fade from elevation to section offered a form of x-ray vision; flicking between alternative floor plans, another sequence suggested an uncanny space in which multiple possibilities co-exist.
In one of the most suggestive sequences, reflected and tiled sectional drawings slowly scroll, giving the impression of an infinite tube-and-plate structure. This sequence clarified and extended a crucial idea that was not immediately apparent in the building design: that the Mediatheque be understood as a small piece cut from an infinite structure. (4) Ito gave this idea more three-dimensional expression in the space he designed for the exhibition Japan Today '95. Based on the same images as the Mediatheque, this space contained seven tubular columns made of metal mesh and translucent fabric. Aluminium panels and acrylic mirrors hazily reflected the columns, creating the illusion of infinite spatial extension. (5) This idea was already implicit the early Mediatheque design sketch. It is not clear whether it is a section or elevation. When slicing an infinite whole, however, every cut produces the same result - hence the similarity between the Mediatheque's elevations and sections, and Ito's understated treatment of the facades.
Ito's conception of the building changed as it took shape on site. Having imagined them as pliant and delicate, the steel tubes turned out to be very solid material objects. "I was overwhelmed by their presence and forced to rethink." Another transformation occurred when the tubes were wrapped in glass. "Painted white and placed behind glass, the steel became less crude and conspicuous. It was as if the tubes had become like products in a showcase. The transformation from virtual tubes to real tubes… also involved a transformation in my concept of the tubes." (6)
Where you start is not where you end up. Challenging the assumption that ideas transport without corruption or loss into buildings, Robin Evans commented, "we can never be quite certain, before the event, how things will travel and what will happen to them on the way." (7) It is easier to communicate ideas through drawings, models, and installations than buildings. However a building's ability to influence actions and perceptions gives built ideas a powerful effect. The Mediatheque's development is an incessant negotiation between (and proliferation of) the real and the virtual.
The finished building's most distinctive feature is its structure: thin honeycomb steel floor plates skewered on tubes of welded steel pipe. As vertical circulation routes, the tubes channel people, light, air and energy. Some contain stairs or elevators, others air conditioning ducts. Computer-controlled reflectors atop two tubes beam daylight deep into the building. Developed with engineer Mutsuro Sasaki, the most remarkable quality of the structure is that it barely resembles structure at all. Negative details suggest the tubes pass through the plates without touching. The structure seems not to resist gravity but to neutralise it. This is a space where the laws of nature don't apply - abstract, conceptual, dreamlike.
Ito sees the building as a stack of interchangeable floors with distinct characters: different ceiling heights, surface finishes, furniture and lighting. Ito prepared the layouts, but much of the fit out was done by invited designers: architect Kazuyo Sejima designed the information centre and children's library on the second floor; British industrial designer, Ross Lovegrove, developed the sixth floor multimedia studio; and Karim Rashid created furniture for the galleries and ground floor public plaza. The continuity of each floor is rarely interrupted. There are few walls. This open structure gives the building an inherent flexibility. The space is free to be reconfigured to meet changing demands or to accommodate unimagined technological developments. The open plan is not intended to create homogeneity but differentiation. Within this continuous space, subtle variations in spatial character are effected by the tubes - some places are light, others dark; some lively, others quiet - stimulating a variety of activities.(8)
When I visited the Mediatheque it was packed with people: families in the children's library; teenagers in the video booths; students cramming in the library; old men sitting, shoes off, checking betting forms in the quieter corners; black-clad, digicam-wielding architecture students charging up and down the stairs and lifts. The structure of the Mediatheque generates chance encounters, unpredictable connections and gatherings. This moves the building beyond being just a metaphor for architecture's connection to the city and the virtual world; it becomes an active agent in that exchange.
How does the building's primitive body compare to its many virtual ones? Moving around, qualities less apparent in the drawings and models are the most engaging: the character of each floor, juxtapositions of materials, chance views. However, the "re-mediation" of the building emphasises qualities manifest in the early images. What was photogenic then remains so now. In photographs, reflective floor surfaces create ghostly extensions of the tubes; reflected images of the interior, visible when looking out through the glass facade, reassert the infinite spatial extension suggested in the installations. Photographers emphasise qualities that are usually overwhelmed by the sense of space and movement when experiencing the actual building.
It is telling that this building, so concerned with information technology, has itself become so heavily mediated. Ito says, "Communicating architectural concepts is difficult because architecture inevitably has a dual character. It is both an abstract model of ideas and something that actually exists."(9) Developing through successive iterations, the Mediatheque is a building with not just two bodies but many. As with our own bodies, it may be more accurate to think of these identities as being entangled. Each is deeply imbued with the others.
[sketch: Toyo Ito; photos: Dana Buntrock]
Andrew Barrie is a New Zealand architect based in Tokyo. His designs exploit the relationship between the perception of space and its representation in abstract architectural media such as drawings and models. He has won a number of design awards in New Zealand and Japan, and been selected for Japan's prestigious SD Reviews in 1998 and 1999. He is working on a PhD as a Monbusho Scholar at the University of Tokyo's Department of Architecture.
1. Toyo Ito "The Transparent Urban Forest" The Japan Architect 19, 1995. pp77-8. 2. Toyo Ito "Sendai Mediatheque Design Competition" GA Document 43, 1995. p50. 3. Toyo Ito "The Communication of Ideas" GA Document 39, 1994. p63. 4. Leo Yokota "Simulation" Toyo Ito / Blurring Architecture, Charta, Milan, 1999. p131. 5. Toyo Ito "The Transparent Urban Forest" op cit. p76. 6. Toyo Ito "The Lessons of the Sendai Mediatheque"The Japan Architect 41, 2000. p7. 7. Robin Evans "Translations from Drawing to Building" AA Files 12, 1986. p15. 8. This attention to spatial character explains Ito's cryptic assertion that the Mediatheque is not about formal expression. He is not trying to make "forms" but "places". 9. Toyo Ito "The Communication of Ideas" op cit. p63. / Many of Ito's quoted have been abridged.