At the end of May Japanese architect Toyo Ito headed to Boston to collect the 2013 Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the Nobel of architecture. The comparison is apt: winners take home $100,000, a bronze medal and earn a spot in the annals of culture, courtesy of the prize’s founder, Hyatt Hotels mogul Jay Pritzker.
Ito’s win was significant not only for its recognition of his own brilliant contributions to the global architecture world (“seeking to extend the possibilities of architecture”), but for the fact that it was the second consecutive year in which an Asian architect has snagged the prize. Last year it was renowned draughtsman Wang Shu, the first Chinese architect to win the honor for his “strong sense of cultural continuity and reinvigorated tradition”.Wang even landed on TIME Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people, alongside Jay-Z and Rand Paul.
Just a few years earlier, in 2010, Ito’s apprentices Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima took the same award.
The nod to Ito, Wang, Nishizawa and Sejima speaks to Asia’s status as a rising star in the world of building aesthetics, and is also telling as to how this trend is playing out differently in Japan and China. On the one hand, Wang’s work has been recognized for the story it tells of his nation’s urban explosion, while also critiquing the way in which this growth has been managed. The feeling that came with Wang’s win last year was one of vigor and progress for a new architectural power on the ascent – mirroring China’s broader rise.
“The question of the proper relation of present to past is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future,” the jury said in its citation for Wang.
In the case of Japan, architecture is characterized more by abstraction than tradition, as Ito’s work attests. Born in Seoul to Japanese parents in 1941, Ito was raised in Nagano and studied at the University of Tokyo. In 1971 he launched his own studio, Urban Robot, which was very much in the style of the Metabolists, a group of avant-garde postwar Japanese architects who foresaw trends that are only now coming to fruition.
One of Ito’s most enduring works is his White U house, built in 1976. He designed the house for his sister, right next to his own, following her husband’s death. The structure’s concrete bunker-like appearance encompassed an inner courtyard
The New Yorker describes it as “a seemingly windowless concrete bunker that curved around a stark internal courtyard, the house has been interpreted as a built allegory of grief and hearth…In the curvingly cave-like, broad interior corridor, whose terminus at the house’s kitchen is visually delayed by the perspectival effect of that curve, a notional representation of endlessness, and an experience of enduring anticipation.”
As if this wasn’t all suggestive enough as it was, Ito had the house demolished in 1997 as he looked on.
Equally poignant, though in the opposite way, Ito’s other most notable work is his Sendai Mediatheque, a public library in the city that was ravaged in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
In a video of the disaster, “The building shook and swayed violently; everything cascaded from shelves and desks onto the floor,” architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Ceiling panels appeared to swing drunkenly overhead. But the Mediatheque did not collapse. It stood firm against the massive seismic forces that were tearing other buildings apart; the basic structure did not fail.”
Some of Ito’s other futuristic visions in their actualized form can be seen here.