Design for All


Sendai Mediatheque. Photo by Tomio Ohashi

The building started shaking at 2:46pm. Books tumbled off shelves, magazine racks teetered and ceiling panels swayed violently back and forth like a drunk trying to reclaim his balance. This was the scene in a YouTube video recorded the seventh floor of the Sendai Mediatheque on March 11, when an extraordinarily powerful earthquake shook the Tohoku region of Japan.

What makes the video remarkable is just how little happens: in one of the worst tremors in recent history, the Mediatheque did not collapse. In fact, it suffered only a few broken windows, ceiling panels and rooftop solar panels – and this despite a seemingly precarious design of transparent walls and open floor plans. “This is the kind of architecture that critics of modernism like to call risky and unreliable,” wrote architecture critic Ana Louise Huxtable, after the earthquake. “When flaws appear, schadenfreude follows.”

But the Mediatheque’s architect, Toyo Ito, is no ordinary modernist. While the the winner of the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize shares the heroic vocabulary of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, he is using that architectural language to very different ends, and the Sendai Mediatheque, which was completed in 2001, is a prime example of his more humanist philosophy.

“After it was completed, people took care of the building and allowed it to evolve. It was never a finished project,” Ito told me when I met him last December. The building’s unique structure, which is based on tree-like trunks rather than traditional support columns, allows for an exceptionally flexible and permeable interior. (Not to mention one that is particularly resistant to earthquakes, too.) “Especially after the earthquake, it became even more of a place for people to gather,” said Ito. “The staff started holding a lot of events. It has really made me proud to see how people are using it.”

When he took the stage at Business of Design Week in Hong Kong, Ito spoke passionately against the rigidity and aloofness that has characterized so much modern architecture. “Modernists build the same building wherever it is,” he declared. “It excludes nature, excludes the specific character of places, excludes regional history and culture. Even people become homogenous when their environments all look the same.”

Ito saw this familiar pattern taking shape after the Tohoku earthquake. Thousands of people lost their homes, and after sharing space in school gymnasiums, they were offered rooms in blocks of prefabricated temporary shelters. Many of the survivors complained of feeling isolated. “There was nowhere for them to meet their neighbors,” he said.

That’s when he decided to launch Home for All, a project that brings together architects and designers to build kindergartens, daycares and gathering spaces for earthquake survivors. By working closely with members of the community, the architects have been able to create structures tailored to the specific needs of people in the small towns that were hit hardest by the disaster. “These are very quiet people, but they opened up over time and shared with us what they wanted,” said Ito.

The first structure was built with local wood and included a porch, a wood stove, barbecue, a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats and a table for 15 people. “When we opened the house, some people were so happy to see it, they were driven to tears,” said Ito. “In 40 years of being an architect, I’ve never had that kind of emotional reaction from a client.” There are now nine Home for All structures around the Tohoku region; the latest, a gathering place for fishermen, opened in late November. “A lot of the big government revitalization projects aren’t helping – they are done only for political reasons,” said Ito. “In this kind of situation, even the smallest of buildings should help, which is why I’m working with people, bit by bit.”

Ito has long been known as a kind of architectural chameleon. Unlike many architects, he has no discernible style; what unites his work is an emphasis on process. “Rather than implement my own program, I focus on my clients and how I can communicate with them,” he said. Ito received early acclaim for White U, a spare concrete house built in 1976 for Ito’s widowed sister; he looked on as it was demolished in 1997, a necessary step, he said, as the family’s time of mourning had passed.

Since then, much of his work has been concerned with providing balance between private and public lives. Ito has described his buildings as a kind of “clothing” that “is necessary in order for man to have a relationship with and integrate himself into the environment” – a philosophy best embodied by the Sendai Mediatheque, with its porous spaces and light-footed presence.

But Ito is not an architect who revels in his accomplishments. “Designing a building is like raising a child,” he said. “You start with a rough sketch where there are millions of possibilities, then through the design process you get to know your building very well. But once it’s finished and everything is decided, I look back and reflect – maybe if I had done something differently, it would have been better. That’s what motivates me to keep working.”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday April 28 2014at 05:04 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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