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2016_08_03
Illuminating Influence: ‘A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond’
         

Illuminating Influence:
‘A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond’
 
 
For the first time, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is holding an exhibition that solely highlights Japanese architects. The exhibit holds a special meaning as it looks at the holistic scope of Japanese architecture instead of focusing on one architect, from the first generation contemporary architects Toyo Ito and SANNA, to those who studied under their influence, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, and Junya Ishigami. This exhibit showcases innovative structural design and expressive techniques, using light and transparent materials, and concentrates on the deep rooted characteristics of the Japanese architectural world. It also challanges the contemporary architecture scene, one immersed in a one Star-architect system. The exhibit will be open until 31 July 2016.
reported by Natalie Ferris│materials provided by The Museum of Modern Art
 
 
 
©Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects
Toyo Ito, Toyo Ito and Surroundings, Ink on paper, 8 1/4×11 11/16" (21×29.7cm), 2012
 
Is every architect the sum of his or her influences? This is the question eloquently addressed by the current exhibition in the architecture galleries at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, ‘A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond’. At the entrance to the galleries a large piece of paper is tacked onto the wall in a white frame, upon which a grouping of circles have been drawn in thick black pen. Delineating the ‘Surroundings’ of the Pritzker Prize winning architect Toyo Ito, this diagram depicts a web of interlocking groups of architects and engineers that have been influenced by his practice, and whose work has inspired him. Pedro Gadanho, the former curator of contemporary architecture at MoMA, and the current director of the new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon, asked Ito in 2012 to sketch out his sense of his own contemporary practice. Placing himself at the centre, Ito conceived of a constellation of designers that spans three generations, including Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata and Junya Ishigami. Dated 9 September 2012, the diagram is as relevant today as then, not only on personal terms to Ito, but also as a model for the ways in which architectural concepts emerge and develop through networks of ideas. As MoMA’s first exhibition dedicated solely to Japanese architects, it seeks to spotlight a number of key practitioners and the orbit of influences within which they operate, in order to ‘frame a radical mode of practice in the 21st century.’ However, to what extent does the exhibition capture the dynamism of these contemporary connections? And how democratic is the constellation, when Ito is at its centre?
 
Toyo Ito, Sendai Mediatheque, Miyagi, Japan, 1995 – 2001

The show begins with what Ito himself recognizes as one of the high points of his career, the Sendai Mediatheque, designed in 1995 and completed in 2001 in Sendai City, Miyagi, Japan. It is itself a constellation of many of the exhibition’s central concerns: organic structures, illusory forms, collaborations with new technology and building to withstand natural disasters (having survived the 2011 earthquake). These concerns are extrapolated out across the generations, and become connections which serve as solid linkages between the generations. Gadanho has long had an interest in fostering the talent of the younger generations, running the young architects programme at MoMA. The three youngest featured architects have all inherited some aspect of Ito’s resonant aesthetic or conceptual concerns. Sou Fujimoto is motivated by the discovery of new configurations in public space, transforming the everyday lives and patterns of behaviour of people, speaking of the ‘primitive future’ of architecture. Akihisa Hirata too draws upon Ito’s complex relationship to the natural landscape, employing patterning to mimic the natural world, with the following quotation emblazoned across the wall of the space: ‘I want to create an architecture that is ecological in the purest sense of the word. ‘Tangling’ is the term I prefer for it’. Junya Ishigami has clearly imbibed the desire to explore the physical limits of architecture, such as the five storey metallic inflatable Balloon (2007 – 2008) or the excavations of soil at House and Restaurant (2013 – ongoing).
Toyo Ito was born in 1941 in Keijo in Japanese occupied Seoul, during the height of World War Two, and as a young architect he worked in the offices of Kiyonori Kikutake, one of the founders of the visionary postwar Metabolist group. Establishing his own practice at the age of 30 in 1971, known as Urban Robot (Urbot) which in 1979 became what it remains today, Toyo Ito & Associates Architects, his work has become synonymous with a fluidity and simplicity, bringing the physical and virtual world into careful balance. This produces a kind of sublime architectural revelation for the viewer or occupant, a design approach that has been disseminated among many of Ito’s collaborators and disciples, as evidenced by the selected projects seen here. One of the most impressive features of the exhibition is the sensitivity to the means of display. There is an ethereal beauty to the space in the arrangement of sheer white panels of translucent fabric, devising permeable boundaries between each of the six main sections documenting the work of Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the firm SANAA (designers of the New Museum in lower Manhattan) and the younger architects Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata and Junya Ishigami. The delicacy of the panels is drawn from the Japanese material tradition, conversant with the typically lightweight materials, minimal spatial definition and geometric structural forms of many of the buildings here on display. The diversity of the 44 projects is broad, ranging from small domestic sites to competition commissions and institutions.
 
 
 
Photographed by Thomas Griesel

One glimpses through the openings between panels the photographs, models, drawings and sketches of the other featured architects, while film projections of projects and digital models bleed into one another on both sides of the diaphonous screens. Ito’s opening diagram is here made form, whereby the curators encourage the overlapping of lines of enquiry, shared architectural vocabularies, and corresponding technologies. Gadanho had originally approached Ito with the idea of staging a solo show, but it quickly became apparent that Ito’s situation within a network of luminaries was far more important to him than a focus upon the notion of the individual author. Gadanho and his co-curator Phoebe Springstubb have gone to great lengths to ensure that equal space and consideration is given to each of the participating architects or architectural firms, in order to focus attention away from individual personalities. Speaking to Dezeen magazine, Gadanho suggested that this group were unlike many other famous architects working today who ‘find a formal or stylistic recipe and just keep repeating it in any new situation, and therefore exhaust a certain creative input’.▼1 He was more interested in the ways in which they feed upon and transform the concepts of one another, offering an alternative model or approach to the exhibition of architectural design through a panorama of practice, as opposed to the commonly upheld ‘star-system’ of contemporary architecture.

However, the aesthetic considerations of the space overshadow the more functional aspects of the buildings here on view. Neither the catalogue nor the wall captions or texts provide much indication of the contexts of the buildings themselves—the ways in which they have been used, whether they have been altered since their creation, reports by occupants or users, the site conditions. Some of the buildings are almost phantasmagorical in their design ambitions—Sou Fujimoto’s 2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is finely woven as gossamer, the verdant foliage of Akihisa Hirata’s ‘Tree-Ness House’ springs from unexpected junctures, Junya Ishigami’s feat of engineering in the thin expanse of tensioned steel that crosses the cafeteria in the Kanagawa Institute of Technology. Although the aim of the show is to better understand the formal and stylistic contiguities that exist within this discrete sphere of architectural experiment, this has perhaps obscured unique contextual analysis. What is it like to inhabit the spectacle of these spaces?

This charge is in part addressed by the concluding section of the show, which focuses on an aspect of Ito’s practice that is very close to his heart, the ‘Home-for-All’ project produced in the wake of the devastating 2011 Great East Japan earthquake. Following the disaster, a group of five architects, headed by Ito and including Kazuyo Sejima, proposed the initiative to construct simple communal structures and temporary housing in areas that had been almost entirely razed to the ground. Designed in conversation with local residents, students and builders, each project responds to a town’s particular needs—from playgrounds to platforms for the local fishing industry. For Ito, the fundamental tenets of modern architecture were called into question by ‘Home-for-All’. He explained in the recent publication Toyo Ito—Forces of Nature:

In the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its originality. As a result, the most primal themes—why a building is made and for whom—have been forgotten. A disaster zone, where everything is lost offers the opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is. ‘Home-for-All’ may consist of small buildings, but it calls to the fore the vital question of what form architecture should take in the modern era—even calling into question the most primal themes, the very meaning of architecture.▼2
This section of the show has less to say about aspirational structural engineering, creative personalities or the value of beauty in design, and more about the ways the design field is responding to societal change, public consensus and environmental catastrophe. Here, the circles of Ito’s diagram necessarily widen to admit the influence exerted by the community and their immediate need for basic and resilient shelter, widening beyond aesthetic connectives to appreciate the emotional ties that bind an occupant to a place as home. Perhaps if Ito could continue to add the public voice to those circles, the constellation will be complete.
 
1. http://www.dezeen.com/2016/03/24/japanese-architects-reject-starchitecture-moma-curator-exhibition-constellation-toyo-ito-sanaa/
2. Toyo Ito, Toyo Ito – Forces of Nature, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012, pp. 132 – 138.
 
 
Natalie Ferris is a writer, critic and the English Editor of SPACE. After obtaining her Masters in Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art, London, she began reading for her PhD at the University of Oxford. She was awarded the 2014 Aidan Meller Art Criticism Award.
 
 
 
tag.  MoMA , A Japanese Constellation , SANAA , Toyo Ito , Natalie Ferris
       
no.583 (2016.June) 
 
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