Toyo Ito Wins $100,000 Pritzker Prize for Bravura Designs

Toyo Ito, an architect who uses bravura engineering to achieve effortless-looking lyricism, was yesterday named the 2013 laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The Tokyo-based architect will receive the bronze medal and a $100,000 check at a May 29 ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

The prize was established in 1979 by billionaire Jay A. Pritzker, who founded Hyatt Hotels Corp., and his wife, Cindy.

Big international prizes like the Pritzker have often celebrated architects who need neither the money nor the attention.

In recent years the Pritzker juries have chosen transformative, but less-known talents, like last year’s winner, Wang Shu, who has resisted China’s wholesale obliteration of its traditional cityscapes.

Toyo Ito, 71, is no celebrity. His inviting, even voluptuous forms come from a painstaking attention to circumstances. He topped sober marble cubes in a funeral hall in Japan’s Gifu prefecture with an undulating roof that seems to dance.

Sendai Mediatheque

“There’s an underlying discipline that allows him to be open, fresh and young in many ways,” said Ken Tadashi Oshima, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington, who is a Japan specialist and has worked with Ito.

The architect’s best-known building is the Sendai Mediatheque (2000) in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture, a rectangle wrapped in transparent glass so passersby can see in. It anticipated how digital technologies would transform libraries. A broad open floor plan invites people to work and collaborate in new ways.

Working with structural engineer Mutsuro Sasaki, he supported the building with elegant latticework bundles of pipes that run inside tubes of glass. They gently tilt in different directions, an effect likened to swaying seaweed.

In spite of its fragile appearance, the library, near the epicenter of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, suffered only minor damage and was reopened two months after the tragedy. (A video shot inside during the quake went viral.) In an e-mail, Ito said the library is now used by record numbers of visitors.

Ito was born in 1941 in Seoul, but his family returned to Japan a short time later. He became passionate about design while working for the architect Kiyonori Kikutake in 1964.

Cecil Balmond

In Ito’s projects, playfulness warms dull sobriety. In an early Tokyo house he designed for himself, metal vaults, like stylish Quonset huts, seemed to have jumped on top of each other. The 1986 Tower of the Winds is a light sculpture that registers passing breezes.

Working with the engineer Cecil Balmond, he built the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion in London of shattered fragments suspended impossibly in air.

Ito’s un-built 2008 project for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California (his only U.S. commission) would have been among his most ambitious.

He sought to marry an easy, fluid visitor experience with the neutrality of the white-box gallery. So he designed rectangular walls to warp near the corners, like draperies, to form curvy, inviting doors and windows.

In recent large-scale projects, he has demanded exacting engineering and construction techniques, yet the designs have not lost an easy, inviting grace. In the 40,000-seat 2009 World Games Stadium, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, the rounded form of the seating bowl becomes a serpentine tail that sails across an entry plaza to shelter fans.

Digestive Piping

The Taichung Metropolitan Opera House, under construction in Taiwan, fits three theaters (2,000, 800 and 200 seats) in what looks like a monumental network of pipe fittings.

We are urged to “imagine human digestive organs,” according to Ito, intending the fluid shapes to bring the adjacent park inside “as a continuous space that would lead you to the theaters spontaneously as if you were exploring a cave.”

Repairing the Sendai Mediatheque took Ito back to the scene of the Fukushima devastation. Unhappy with the pace of rebuilding, he worked with volunteer architects on “Home-for-All,” a series of small, house-like gathering places for people who have been confined to isolated temporary housing.

“It’s caused us to rethink the fundamental question, ‘What is architecture?’” he wrote.

It’s a rare architect who would ask such a question after a successful four-decade career.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on art, Lewis Lapham on history.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.