Thinking about Architecture for Tomorrow

“Thinking about Architecture for Tomorrow” is translated title of public lecture held by Japanese architect Toyo Ito at School of Architecture, The Chinese University of Hong Kong in October 2012. The lecture followed workshop and discussion forum in the morning with the final year master students. Toyo Ito has been a strong influential figure for my generation of architects, I started studying architecture in 1990’s at The Bartlett school of architecture UCL. I remember when I first visited Sendai Mediatheque building when it opened in 2001 and temporally installation for Serpentine Pavillion in the summer of 2002; as recent graduate and freshly employed architectural assistant of a small architecture office in London, without knowing the design process or ideas behind the building, I have found memory of wandering around the buildings.

20th Century Architecture;
Behind presentation on some of his office’s major work in the past 10 years is his reflection and criticism of the 20th century architecture, characterised by buildings designed for industrialised society and architectural principle with rationalization of program and focus on technology with systematic construction method. He refers to Mies Van Der Rohe who pioneered the new architecture movement in the age of industrialisation in Europe and America at turn of the century and created based for new architectures movement of the 20th century. When looking back at the images of our modern cities today, he feels that 20th century architecture with rationalised analysis of building programs has unitised and segmented our lives, as a result, has created isolated and fragmented society with homogenic cities of glass towers with rigid grid system everywhere without unique character. For the past 10 years, he has been thinking that we are perhaps coming to the limit of these architectural principles and he shares his feeling that there is need for reverting back to more primitive environment where programs in the buildings were less defined and where people could inhabit the buildings like when humans were living out in the nature. He also feels that cities of today no longer have meaningful relationship with surrounding natural environment and need for creating human habitation that has better relationship, architecture that do not rationally divide and shut out the nature.

Background of Architecture in Tokyo:
Behind these reflections and his thought lies background of witnessing the birth and collapse of Metabolism movement, a visionally architecture movement for future cities depicted by a group of young architects in 1960’s including Kiyonori Kukutake, the office where he worked for 4 years prior to setting up independently; the ideas and dreams of cities constructed from advanced technology and industrialised society were never fulfilled. Osaka Expo 70 which is considered to be optimised realisation of these future cities, new generation of young Japanese architects including Toyo Ito begin to realise these dreams have become no more than an opportunity to celebrate the national pride. Having been let down by the dream-like proposals for future cities, the new young generation of Japanese architects no longer focused on utopian visions of future cities and started to focus on architecture as radical criticism of society at that time(1).

Another background is experiencing the transformation of Tokyo where Toyo Ito lived and worked throughout his life. Tokyo was a fascinating city for Toyo Ito, it had feeling of “newness” and optimistic attitude towards its future. However following the crash of the bubble economy Japan suffered over 10 years of down turn, and at the turn of 21st century Tokyo no longer had its former attractiveness. Toyo Ito begin to wonder if his architecture was merely part of capitalism mechanism, that this uninspiring dreamless city Tokyo has become was result of modernity (2).

Toyo Ito Workshop 690.jpg
Tokyo and Hong Kong:
There are number of interesting comparative aspects of Hong Kong and Tokyo which have contrasting urbanisation characteristics; in many respects, Tokyo is currently focused on the process of regeneration and gradual densification (3). Tokyo is no longer expanding and urbanised like during the post-war rapid population increase and economic growth in the 60’s to mid 80’s. In contrast, the focus in Hong Kong today is still based on the rapid expansion fuelled by the continuing population / economic growth and urbanisation especially for the new town development around the border of Shenzhen.

However, if theory goes that as the current economic and demographic trends stabilise, Hong Kong will also enter different phases of urbanisation following the footsteps of Tokyo focusing more into process of regeneration and gradual densification. In this respect within Tokyo and Toyo Ito’s lecture can we find catalysts or insight into challenges of 21st Century Architecture for Hong Kong? Having gained architectural training in UK and studying architecture in the context of British Modernism Architecture scene, I find Ito’s argument about limitation of the modernism architecture movement striking. For architects in Hong Kong where architecture is created and destroyed by the tremendous power of capitalism (2), where the market is dominated by buildings which are constructed by powerful developers and with virtually no small scale private housing development opportunities, the challenge for the architects seems to lie in the ways to create opportunity to test new direction while firmly engaged in the framework at which Hong Kong city are designed and created.
(1) Architecture Words 8 Tarzans In The Media Forest Toyo Ito. AA Publications ISBN978-1-902902-90-6
(2) Anohikarano kenchiku. Dainihon Publications ISBN978-4-08-720661-6
(3) Dr. Hidetoshi Ohno, The University of Tokyo. “Paradigm shift in urbanisation of Tokyo after the post-war rapid economical growth.”