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Born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1941, Toyo Ito moved back to his father’s native town of Suwa-shi Nagano in Japan soon after birth and graduated from Tokyo University in 1965. His ambition had always been to become a professional baseball player but he says that, as no university would give him a sport scholarship, he ‘had no choice’ but to study architecture. After his studies Ito worked for Japanese Metabolist architect Kiyonori Kikutake until 1969, before opening his own office in 1971.
His practice made its name with the introverted U-House in Tokyo (1976), clad in white masonry with no outward-facing openings. Instead the house looks into a central courtyard, with slits in the roof allowing a dramatic play of light in the minimal interior. Ito’s work subsequently began to experiment more and more with diaphanous skins, holding lightness of structure and transparency as cardinal virtues. His own house, the Silver Hut in Nakano (1984), experimented with perforated and transparent screens in industrial materials to refer in a contemporary way to the lightness and translucency of traditional Japanese building methods. For Ito, industrial perforated aluminium can take on similar qualities to paper screens and movable walls, but the Silver Hut also has the qualities of an airship, with a taut, light skin stretched over a frame.
His most notable buildings after this period included the wonderful ‘Tower of the Winds’ in Yokohama (1986) – a light sculpture consisting of 1,300 flickering lamps configured to respond to the direction of the wind. His Old People’s Home ‘Hoju-ryo’ (1994) and Municipal Museum (1991), both in Yatsushiro, were his first major institutional buildings. They launched a decade of success, including the Nagayama Amusement Complex in Tokyo (1993) and the almost completely transparent ITM Building in Matsuyama (1993), leading to his masterpiece, completed in 2001 – the Sendai Médiathèque.
Seldom has a building been so eagerly awaited. Widely trailed in the architectural press before, during and after construction, the média¬thèque was conceived as a seven-storey structure, clad in glass and held up by branch-like steel members arranged in thirteen tubular columns housing services and allowing light to penetrate the depth of the floor plate. It is spectacular, at once referring to the characteristic trees that line the roads of Sendai and providing a 22,000-square-metre space of incredible lightness. The médiathèque derives its diagram from Le Corbusier’s 1914 Dom-lno project, but also, again, refers to the movable screens and walls of the traditional Japanese house. The fit-out, with furniture and screens designed by Ross Lovegrove dividing the interior, has been criticized by some as being unsympathetic to Ito’s structure, but it remains one of the most important buildings of recent years in Japan, and confirms Ito’s place as the pre¬eminent voice in contemporary Japanese architecture.