Architect: Toyo Ito & Associates
Location: Sendai, Japan
Built: 1997 - 2000
Having won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2005, Toyo Ito is one of the more important architects of the late 20th century, and continues to be influential today, with architecture that is in tune with the so-called ‘digital age’. Perhaps his most celebrated work, the Sendai Mediatheque is a large building (over 21,000m2 spread over nine floors) encompassing a wide variety of cultural and media-based functions. It represents a new generic type of building that seems to fit perfectly in Ito’s vision of modern society, able to respond to continuously changing media and information technology, and the users' diverse needs.
See the article on Toyo Ito for more information about the architect.
The exterior form is little more than a cube, however due to the fully glazed front (south) façade, the shape becomes unimportant, and the building can be viewed simply as a series of thin floor plates suspended on gently swaying tubes constructed from a lattice of steel pipes. Reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Maison Domino, the floor plates seem almost to defy gravity, giving the building an extraordinary lightness and transparency. Where a glazed façade was not possible (on the east side, where fire escapes are located) Ito uses perforated aluminium slats as screening, which shows an obvious link back to smaller projects.
The ground floor features a large plaza used for public events, a café, and a shop. It was designed to promote social interaction, which is an important feature of the building, and a direct response by Ito to impede the homogenisation of modern man by consumerism and digital media (see article on Toyo Ito for more on his architectural vision). The visitor then rises through the building via circulation mostly hidden within the tubes. This makes them integral to the building in many ways: the main structure, the vertical circulation, carrying services and metaphorically, physical links between the ‘floating’ floors of modern media.
The next 3 floors are occupied by a library, which encompasses facilities for the blind and deaf, as well as ‘nodes’ that allow access to the internet. Above this are two floors of gallery space, and a top floor with studios, a theatre and audio-visual equipment. Overall the idea is to provide an environment where anyone can collect, accumulate, edit and dispatch information.
Aside from the tubes that penetrate each floor, they are predominately open-plan (another reference to Le Corbusier-like planning), which Ito saw as important so that the building can adapt to future changes. This could have led to a homogenisation of the floors, however Ito has tried to counter this. Each area is given its own character, with differing ceiling heights, alternation between orthogonal and sinuous walls, and by allowing other designers to fit out certain areas – the children’s library was designed by former assistant Kazuyo Sejima, and plaza furniture was created by acclaimed designer Karim Rashid. The use of synthetic curtains and sliding screens allows maximum flexibility in the spaces.
In terms of hierarchy, it may be assumed that the functions higher up are more important – classically this would probably have been the library (a traditional bastion of knowledge), however Ito places the artistic and the digital media areas at the top, perhaps a suggestion that these are now more important in today’s world. Nevertheless, the clear conceptual diagram almost allows the building to dismiss hierarchy, as if the floors are interchangeable.
Sendai Mediatheque has been called the “Culmination of his [Ito’s] quest to fuse the physical and virtual worlds”. The building is still within the realms of normality - it doesn’t look out of place in the city - however its subtle radicalism (in terms of its function and structure) seems to place it in the near future. The use of state-of-the-art technology, colour and fluid spaces provides a feast of sensory stimuli that appeal to our ‘virtual being’, whereas the feeling of being in a designated building gives modern media a physical side as well – you cannot access all the information just sitting at your personal computer.
Compared to other Ito projects, Sendai Mediatheque features much fewer references to traditional Japanese architecture, although there is an inherent simplicity to the form, whilst still generating significant architectural impact. The visibility of its structure behind a glass façade could place it within the High-Tech movement, although it is not readily apparent how the structure actually works. It could also be argued that it fits in the Modernist School (it certainly bears evidence of Le Corbusier’s thinking), since the original Modernists believed that new technology rendered old styles of building obsolete, much as Ito does. However perhaps it fits best with an emerging style - Interactive Architecture - defined succinctly by Ruairi Glynn as “architecture that aims to merge digital technologies and virtual spaces with tangible and physical spatial experiences”. This would link it to buildings such as Carloratti Associates’ Digital Water Pavilion at EXPO 2008 in Zaragoza, which transcends our expectations of what walls should be, by replacing them with digitally-controlled jets of water.
Sendai Mediatheque appears to be a reaction to modern changes in architecture and society – a whole new building typology fully appropriate to today’s culture, with an equal mix of normality and innovation that appeals to both the physical and virtual sides of modern man.
This article was adapted from an essay produced for an Architecture degree year 2 History and Theory course, graded 79% (1st)