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Architectural wonder
1/2/2005 7:44

Shanghai Daily news

Japan's most renowned architect offers some thoughts on city planning and has some words of caution for Shanghai about the pace of its urban modernization and the need to preserve more valuable old buildings, writes Zhao Feifei.
Toyo Ito found the recent spell of unremitting drizzle a nuisance on his recent brief visit to Shanghai.
``It keeps me from seeing the buildings of the city properly. Everything is a fuzz when cruising along the roads,'' said the 64-year-old Japanese who is one of the world's most innovative and influential architects. ``It was regrettable to see that all the small brooks in Pudong are now gone and skyscrapers are in their place. It would have been better if portions of the brooks remained to be part of the modern-day landscape.''
As an architect, Ito's projects are admired in Europe and Asia, yet he is little-known to the average Chinese compared with his fellow architects Paul Andreu who designed the National Grand Theater in Beijing and Rem Koolhaas who designed CCTV's headquarters.
Ito's been back to Shanghai several times since the late 1980s, but he still marvels at the speed with which the city has changed. At the invitation of ``a+u'' architecture magazine, Ito gave a lecture at the Shanghai Library on his one-day stay, sharing his vision of another major project -- Sendai Mediatheque -- in Japan from its inspiration to the completion.
The lecture drew more than 800 listeners and the auditorium was filled with people standing to hear the lecture in rapt silence. Most of those attending were architects or professionals working in related fields and college students made up a significant part of the audience.
Pan Hua, a graduate student who is working part-time in a local architect's office, said: ``Ito's works are very imaginative. It's refreshing -- as if you are tasting a new dish. Ito may use the same ingredients but it's a different experience because he has found a unique way to `cook' it.''
Opened in 2001, Sendai Mediatheque is a multi-purpose public cultural center. The stunning complex houses a library, art gallery, audio-visual library, film studio and cafe. Originally inspired by the image of floating seaweed, the architecture is transparent and light, as if the form were suspended in mid-air.
This is achieved by having 13 tubular steel lattice structures penetrating all seven floors of the building and bearing the thin floor slabs, each only 400 millimeters thick. In daytime, the spaces are flooded with diffused light from the sun while at night, the entire structure is lit up and the building glows invitingly.
``I wanted to create a free and interactive space in this fixed structure,'' Ito said through an interpreter. ``In the 20th century, architecture was more a matter of mechanical sculptures that did not consider its surrounding environment. Today, buildings have to relate to nature and to reflect the society in which we're living to create a resulting harmony.''
The theme of Ito's lecture revolved around the limitations on the freedom an architect has to create.
``In some way, architecture is part of the conservative forces in a society because it follows the rules set down by tradition. So architecture always lags behind the development of advanced ideas,'' he said. ``How to pull architecture up and keep it abreast of avant-garde concepts, how to break out of old modes of thinking and escape the confinement of old schools of thought. This is the challenge faced by architects.''
Ito is well-known for making a paradigm shift in the concept of designing structures in which he sought to fuse the physical and virtual worlds. His buildings are expressions of his obsession to create a feeling of lightness, his desire to strip away anything that reminds people of the force of gravity and his fascination with the look of a building's facade.
His Tower of Winds, a 1986 commission by the city of Yokohama, changes by day and night. During the day, the tower appears to be made of solid aluminum; after sunset, lights come on within and their brightness fluctuates according to outside forces such as wind and noise, giving the building an appearance of fluidity and movement.
Ito was also commissioned to build the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 in Hyde Park in London. He collaborated with Cecil Balmond in exploring new architectural ideas as has been done with garden pavilion designs for hundreds of years.
``A piece of architecture, in its nature, ought to be a fickle and momentary phenomenon,'' Ito says. ``The form of a piece of architecture should be non-complete, non-central, and synchronized with nature and its urban space. Some European buildings have yet to be completed even hundreds of years after they were built.''
Ito studied at the University of Tokyo and after graduation worked for Kiyonori Kikutake, then one of Japan's most important architects, before establishing his own practice in Tokyo in 1971. He has been a guest professor at Columbia University in New York and is an Honorary Professor at the University of North London. His works have been exhibited widely, ranging from his ``Vision of Japan'' at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1991, ``Blurring Architecture'' in Tokyo, Antwerp in Belgium and Germany in 1999 and 2000 as well as ``Vision and Reality'' in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2000.
Ito compared the work of an architect with that of a fashion designer. ``They have something in common. Both have big egos,'' he says jokingly, ``but each has to work with a team and know what the client wants.
``However, at the same time they're different. A fashion designer predicts the trend for the next season -- it's for the time being. But a building takes at least four to five years from planning to completion. So an architect has to have a vision that will last beyond a hundred years.''
Ito's groundbreaking ideas about the form and function of contemporary buildings have secured him a place in the vanguard of world-class architects. He has received many awards, including Gold Medal of ``INTERACH '97'' Grand Prix of the Union of Architects in Bulgaria, Minister's Art Academy Prizes in Japan in 1999, Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture from American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000, World Architecture Award 2002 for the Best Building in East Asia for Sendai Mediatheque and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement from the 8th International Architecture at the Venice Biennale.
In Ito's eyes, the most attractive buildings in Shanghai are not the new high-rise landmarks but the old ``shikumen'' (stone-gate) houses. As more and more old buildings are being pulled down and become prey to the modernization program, he says Shanghai is experiencing what Tokyo went through in the 1980s. Many structures in the Japanese capital were torn down to make way for new ones but even some of the new buildings did not last five years.
``City planning is enormously influenced by the flow of capital. Money has the biggest say,'' he says. ``However, it's important to retain the old buildings and revive them by changing their functions to new uses. The city will be best balanced only if the old buildings, the new constructions and those under renovation, exist in symbiosis.''