His triumph is perhaps a perfect confirmation of the beginning of the re-emergence of Japanese culture after a generation-long period of stagnation.
Ito, 71, has built a consistently thoughtful, radical and intriguing body of work over a career that has spanned five decades and has long been seen as a contender for the prize. The Pritzker was awarded in 2010 to two Japanese architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa – who worked in Ito’s office before establishing their own practices.
Ito is best known for his Sendai Mediatheque, completed in 2001, a public library and art gallery where the architect experimented with a radical structural and servicing distribution which saw chunky, angled columns rise through the building like tubular trunks. These contained not only all the structural supports but also the complex cabling and servicing technology as well as the stairs, allowing floor spaces of exquisite transparency and delicacy.
The result was a striking structure that seemed to combine the high-tech vibrancy of the Japanese urban streetscape, the lightness of building so familiar from the country’s traditional architecture with its paper walls and screens and an exterior appearance that Ito described as “an aquarium”.
The innovative structure was severely tested during the region’s massive earthquake in 2011. A shaky piece of video footage taken on a mobile phone on the seventh floor showed a ceiling wobbling around and furniture rolling across the floor. Incredibly, the delicate-looking, all-glass building came through the earthquake almost entirely intact.
Ito, who was born to Japanese parents in Keijo, now Seoul, began his career associated with the best-known architectural movement to originate from Japan, Metabolism. The movement was concerned with how to rebuild postwar Japan, employing megastructures and taking inspiration from organic modes of growth. Ito worked for one of Metabolism’s leading proponents, Kiyonoru Kikotake. Buildings would become city-scaled frameworks which could be added to and adapted as needs changed. Another leading Metabolist, Kenzo Tange, became the first Japanese architect to receive the Pritzker prize in 1987.He was followed in 1993 by a second, Fumihiko Maki.
Ito established his first office in 1971 calling it “Urbot” or “Urban Robot”. The Metabolist aesthetic may have been defined by a technical mechanical fetish but the name Ito chose reflected not a faith in the advance of technics but rather a disillusionment with the collapse of 1960s optimism and the appearance of 1970s ennui, prefiguring a very contemporary sounding notion of a Japan adrift and its architects as mere cogs in a system.
Despite the disillusionment implicit in the name, Ito completed innovative and intriguing private houses, including one in 1976 for his older sister, who had just lost her husband to cancer. It became known as the U House. A strange, horseshoe-shaped structure around a courtyard with concrete walls that was completely blind to its surroundings, this was a stark, alienated urban gesture which reflected its profoundly sad genesis but nevertheless resulted in an extraordinary interior landscape. Ito watched as it was demolished in 1997.
He also designed the beautiful oval Tower of the Winds in Yokohama; a striking store for fashion brand Tod’s in Tokyo’s Omotesando; a very odd hotel on the edge of Barcelona, the Hotel Porta Fira and an exquisite pavilion for the Serpentine in London in 2002 which, for a while sat incongruously amid the ruins of Battersea Power Station.
Ito is building the huge, truly extraordinary and organic Taichung opera house in Taiwan which looks like a return to the aesthetics and concerns of the 1960s Metabolism with which he began his career. It is due to be completed next year. Ito has resolutely refused to develop a house style, each building a startlingly different proposition from the last. His constant, reinvention and rethinking of architecture has made him a predictable but popular choice as winner. He is also, significantly, the third Asian winner of the past four years – last year’s recipient was Wang Shu from China.
The prize, funded by the Chicago based Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, will be awarded at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in May.