Home > Architecture > Toyo Ito > Designing smt

Designing smt

From "Conversation with Toyo Ito" in Ch.5: sendai mediatheque of TOYO ITO 1
1971-2001 by Toyo Ito. Copyright (c) 2013. Reprinted by permission of TOTO Publishing.

Conversation with Toyo Ito
sendai mediatheque

- When did you draw your famous sketch of tubes for sendai mediatheque?

I believe we'd already done studies for the competition for a month or two.
Yoshie Kamijo had been sorting out the program and the plans. We'd reached the stage where we usually start trying to come up with ideas while developing a general solution. The studies had shown that the building would be about seven stories, and only the gallery hall required a ceiling height of eight to ten meters. It was far and away the tallest space in the program, and we were studying what could be done about it. The idea was conceived to create domed forms, cylinders resembling bud vases that doubled as structure and accommodated the gallery hall. Those later changed into tubes.

- Then the initial idea was to have domed spaces?

Yes. In an earlier competition in Sapporo1, we'd submitted lattice structures, and so we were considering domes with lattice structures for sendai mediatheque.
The idea of tubes was already out there. We were thinking that the tubular columns, like the domes, would be lattice. However, having domes resulted in awkward, difficult-to-use places around them. I thought, then why not simply raise the first-floor ceiling height to about eight meters to accommodate the gallery hall on that floor, instead of inside domes? Then we'd use the tubular columns over the entire building. Having drawn a sketch of that idea on the Narita Express, I faxed it to my office.

- A person who was on the staff at the time said the sketch caused quite an upheaval. Allowing the gallery, which had previously been accommodated inside domes, out onto the plate was an about-face-a radical departure from the conventional approach to the design of public buildings.

Yes. It did away with the very concept of planning.

- Was this an answer to the question-how will media change the architectural program? -that Arata Isozaki had posed in setting out the issues competition participants ought to confront?

Isozaki asked participants "to propose an archetype for the mediatheque." He felt there ought to be an archetype, just as there is the shoebox-type for the concert hall. Isozaki seems to have been thinking of something slightly more architectural than what we proposed. Our solution was a suggestion that in fact no archetype exists.
In the past, typologies did exist, so a spatial schema could be drawn for, say, a theater, a library or an art museum. However, our proposal was for something that was the polar opposite of an archetype. It didn't make any difference if something was on the first floor or the second. Everything was uniform and without hierarchy as in a convenience store.
It didn't matter if sendai mediatheque accommodated the library or the gallery on the first floor.
That said, its uniformity is very different from that of a grid. The space can accommodate any activity anywhere, but places within that space are differentiated by the tubes.

- The floors of sendai mediatheque are flat slabs, which appear frequently in your work. Ordinary beams, on the other hand, have been rare.

I don't want to cut up space. I want it to flow. I am afraid that the presence of beams will destroy spatial continuity.
This is also the case with Tod's Omotesando Building, but sendai mediatheque only works because thin, abstract floor slabs are arranged horizontally and offer contrast to organic, vertical structures. I therefore wrote on the initial sketch that the slabs were to be extremely thin and flat.

- At the time of the competition, the image projected by the scheme was one of drifting, transparent forms, but the realized structural forms are forceful expressions of organic power.

Mutsuro Sasaki took my proposed sketch and with great perseverance arrived at a structural solution, but what was built in the end is fairly sturdy. Sasaki was quite concerned with not just structural problems but problems of construction.
There would have been no problem making it work structurally had wires been used, but problems such as how welding is to be managed where pipes overlap played a major part in the design of the structure. The cross-sectional diameters of the pipes were chosen in the belief that fatter pipes would facilitate construction. Therefore the change of image—the decision to make the structural forms more substantial—could have been the result of an intuition obtained, after a look at the structural proposal, that the initial lightweight image was impossible to achieve.
A building that simply accommodated the floor areas required by the program would have been subject to a setback regulation. The building would have been cut and not have reached the height that it eventually did. I wanted the exterior form of the building to be a cube, no matter what, and that made it necessary to seek an easement of the FAR by providing a public open space on the first floor. In the competition scheme, the building was raised on pilotis and the first floor was used as such a public open space. In the final design, it became necessary to enclose the first floor, but of course we still wanted it to be interpreted by the city authorities as a public open space. Under normal circumstances, the authorities would not have accepted it as such, but Professor Minoru Sugano of Tohoku University and others persuaded them to do so.
There were also studies done to see whether the insides of the tubes ought to be indoor or outdoor. We thought that, in a number of tubes, outdoor space might be allowed to penetrate the interior of the building.
The inside of a tube is a kind of multistory space, and making it fireproof was a very big problem. Then there are the emergency stairs which have been surrounded by ultra high-performance glass containing a liquid that turns cloudy white when temperature rises. The glass can reach 1000 degree on one side and the opposite side will still be safe to touch.

- From what I have seen of your past work, your approach has typically been to create a place by covering with a sloping roof, and enclosing, a level, one-story area. Until sendai mediatheque, you designed few buildings in which floors were layered on top of each other. A one-story building with a sloping roof would seem to accommodate with relative ease a uniform place that can be used in any way. How does your approach change when floors are layered?

The basic principle is to avoid curved walls when there is a sloping roof. Conversely, curved walls are used when the roof is flat. It's difficult to keep everything under control when curved walls are combined with a sloping roof.
Layering is relatively easy to manage, when there are no more than seven or eight stories. However, all the spaces are inevitably flattened except the top floor, so one has to accept that there are limits to what one can do. Changing the floor height was quite an effective way of deviating from an otherwise uniform space in sendai mediatheque.
Since a deliberate decision was made to do away with walls, the floor plans are all alike. We decided to create dramatic changes of atmosphere by means of materials and furniture. At one time we thought about commissioning different designers to do all the interiors. That might have been interesting had we done it.

- The furniture has been designed by different people. The pieces are completely different in atmosphere and color.
That too seems to me a sign of the open, unrestrictive character of the building. The office usually designs everything including the furniture to create its distinctive buildings. Here, however, the structure is sufficiently powerful to accept other people's designs.

Here, I thought of furniture as the tracks of people's actions. Diverse people are engaged in diverse activities in diverse places. My idea was to use furniture to symbolize and represent in outline those activities. Therefore I wasn't thinking of integrating the space as a whole by means of design as I had in previous work. Architectural photographs could be taken anywhere and show anything—I didn't insist on what was to be shown. There was no particular view I wanted photographed.

- After the Great East Japan Earthquake, furniture began to be used on floors different from the ones for which they were originally intended. As a result, the place took on an unfinished air.

Yes. I think it's better if the building is used casually.

- It's precisely because the floors are uniform and can be used in any way that there were displacements of furniture.
As with the arrangement of the rocks in the garden of Ryoanji Temple, the arrangement of the tubes in sendai mediatheque seems to have been determined bit by bit with a constant awareness of how each move affected every relationship.

But the extent of the cantilever on the perimeter was in fact a structural constraint on the arrangement of the tubes. The public gallery space on the first floor is made up of a cluster of small spaces. The introduction of a tube into one of those spaces would have been disruptive. The tubes could have been slightly more randomly arranged from a structural standpoint, but in the end they were more or less lined up into three rows.

- In your conversation with Fujimori, you said tubes allowed you to resist the erection of walls everywhere for practical reasons. That's because no matter how walls were built, gaps would remain and sound and light would leak through.

I wanted to create a more continuous space with partitions arranged between tubes where appropriate. However, there was opposition to that for practical reasons, and things didnAft work out quite as I envisioned.

- Even now, space on the second floor seems to be used freely, as it was meant to be used. The office is marked off by curtains, for example. However, the small gallery on the upper floors has been enclosed, creating places where the tubes are no longer visible. It seems a waste.

Changing partitions each time a special exhibition is organized is no easy matter. Those running the gallery are forced to shift things around constantly, moving this over here because they want to do that there. It's difficult, like playing a game of Go.

- Resolving differences of opinion between the office and the local government, and discussions with the administrator of each facility must have been quite troublesome since this is a multifunctional facility with diverse uses.

Emiko Okuyama [now the mayor of Sendai] who was the city official in charge of the project at the time later became the director of the Mediatheque, dealing with the municipal government. She was truly a big help.

- This is the last interview to be conducted for volume one. A final question. What changed the most in your attitude towards architecture during your long involvement with sendai mediatheque?

Firstly, my view of architecture became more positive.
When I first proposed my scheme for sendai mediatheque, my idea was to create tubes of light so blindingly beautiful it would be difficult to tell if they were structural. I had always wanted to create beautiful buildings. That's because I had come to believe that enjoyable buildings could not be created in Japan, and my experience with Yatsushiro Museum had only reinforced me in that belief. Since the start of my practice in the 1970s, I had believed that architecture ought to possess a critical spirit. I consider a piece of architecture designed by an architect as a from of social criticism. Since the architect is always in opposition to society, he places him or herself outside society. In any case, I had come to believe that I had to try to create the most beautiful thing possible, no matter how small the project. At the same time, I wondered how I could escape the cul-de-sac in which I found myself.
This was true even with public buildings. Yatsushiro Museum was very well received among people in architecture, but I didn't believe it to be a truly interesting museum. At the openings of buildings I'd designed, the only thing people said with regard to my work was that I always designed "unique buildings."
At first, sendai mediatheque was met with negative reactions, even opposition, but once it was completed I was heartened by the fact that people said the building was, not beautiful, but a delight to use. The fact that people were most pleased with the most radical thing I had ever done gave me tremendous confidence.

- Up to then, there had been no connection between users and architects, but in that project the architect stood united with users as one, and users were able to share the intention of the architect.

As was the case with "Home-for-All", many people stepped forward and said they would contribute their skill and labor to its creation. Mutsuro Sasaki and the people of Takahashi Kogyo and Kumagai-gumi there were many such people who helped to create this building.
Modern architecture originally developed as a form of social criticism, as a rejection of the existing social system. It is critical and artistic in character.
Modern architecture was effective when that critical spirit had the power to change society, and the way society can be changed will remain an extremely important issue for architects as long as we continue to design buildings. However, architecture that is modern in style only no longer has the power to change society. Architecture that is recognized only by architects and not by the public has no future. I believe that an architecture that truly has the power to reform society today must channel its critical power into a different form of proposal. The issue today is how to reconstruct it as architecture. That is the issue I am grappling with in "Home-for-All."
When I was designing sendai mediatheque, Ishiyama and others said to me, not unkindly, "It will be the end for you when sendai mediatheque's done. What will you do afterwards" Just as they predicted, something in me changed with this project.