Architect Toyo Ito's Pritzker Prize Triumph Shows the Power of "Inadequacy"

Architect Toyo Ito's Pritzker Prize Triumph Shows the Power of "Inadequacy"
Sendai Mediatheque designed by Toyo Ito in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
(Courtesy of Japan Foundation / Photo: Nakasa & Partners Inc.)

It’s safe to say that few in the architecture community were surprised when Toyo Ito was named the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate this past Sunday. For many, Ito’s newest accolade is long overdue: The 71-year-old has produced a robust portfolio, with projects such as the somber concrete White U (1976) in Tokyo, the mercurial Tower of Winds (1986) in Kanagawa, the sleek and structurally inventive Sendai Mediatheque (2001), and the now-under-construction Taichung Metropolitan Opera House in Taiwan marking distinctive points in a long and influential career.

Ito’s ascent to the Pritzker is markedly different from that of last year’s laureate, the then 48-year-old Chinese architect Wang Shu. The selection of Wang in 2012 was a symbolically potent one, not only reflecting the Pritzker’s intermittent attempts to spotlight less established practitioners, but also calling for a new focus on China, where Wang has attempted to counter rapid urbanization with his historically layered constructions. While feting the emergent Wang Shu forecasted the important work yet to be done — for Wang, other architects, and society at large — the selection of Toyo Ito — a Pritzker frontrunner for some time now — seems relatively apolitical, a mere reaffirmation of past triumphs.

Yet a comment made by Ito in response to the propitious news highlights how this year’s Pritzker Prize can be seen as more than the architecture community resting on its laurels and celebrating one of its own (with $100,000 and a bronze medallion). “Architecture is bound by various social constraints. I have been designing architecture bearing in mind that it would be possible to realize more comfortable spaces if we are freed from all the restrictions even for a little bit,” said Ito. “However, when one building is completed, I become painfully aware of my own inadequacy, and it turns into energy to challenge the next project. Probably this process must keep repeating itself in the future…Therefore, I will never fix my architectural style and never be satisfied with my works.”

The quote has been cited as an explanation for Ito’s evolving “architectural style,” for an oeuvre that encompasses everything from a minimalist wood-and-aluminum shack to the Taiwanese opera house that was deemed technically unachievable for years after its fluid concrete walls were first conceived. The New York Times labeled Ito an “architectural iconoclast” who has “challenged the past 100 years of Modernism,” mythologizing Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque for its radical tectonics, which withstood the 2011 earthquake that shook eastern Japan and to this day represents the merits of the architect’s experimental streak.

One could argue, however, that Ito’s work does in fact reflect a significant aspect of the modernist agenda. Emerging out from the wake of the postwar Japanese Metabolists, Ito has demonstrated a characteristically modern fervor for new technology: His Tower of Winds presents a nocturnal spectacle of polychromatic neon rings that respond to the city’s shifting wind patterns; his Kaohsiung stadium not only runs on solar power but also shades spectators with a curving shape derived by computers; the glass cube of Ito's famed Sendai media library espouses the rise of new informational technologies and the synthesis of real and virtual environments.

Yet the humility of Ito’s response, his expressed feeling of “inadequacy,” points to limits that even his own inventive designs have admittedly failed to overcome: architecture’s social constraints. As Ito’s statement suggests, this insuperable shortcoming motivates the architect to greet new challenges with new ideas — utilizing new technologies and concepts — and to refrain from finding satisfaction in even his most powerful and enduring works. In a sense, Ito is communicating what Wang Shu’s Pritzker conferring boldly insinuated: There is much work to be done.