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Jet lag can do strange things to a person. But it wasn’t just a mixed-up body clock that had me awake at 3 a.m. during a trip to Japan a few years ago, madly scrolling through online ferry schedules and trying to plot a route by train, boat and taxi to a new architecture museum on the southern island of Omishima. It was also a long-standing interest — OK, maybe an infatuation — with the work of Japanese architect Toyo Ito.
Since the economic crisis of 2008, there’s been a substantial backlash against the idea that critics should write exclusively, or even mostly, about stand-alone buildings by prominent architects. We’ve found broader and more complex ways to explore the relationship between architecture and society. The culture of “starchitecture,” that overused if sometimes bluntly effective term, has lost its luster.
But we make an exception for Ito, who won the Pritzker Prize, the field’s top honor, in 2013. One of the deans (with Arata Isozaki and Tadao Ando) of Japanese architecture, he is, at 73, one of the few designers who can make a critic drop everything to get on a plane to see one solitary building in some remote part of the world.
In large part, his work appeals to even the most jaded observers of contemporary architecture because of its rich variety. Unlike Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster or Daniel Libeskind, whose buildings are stamped with a recognizable signature, there’s an elusiveness to Ito’s output. He’s designed small houses, aerodynamic glass towers and low-slung, geometrically complex museum buildings. A recent essay by architecture critic Thomas Daniell — with apologies, presumably, to Harrison Ford — calls Ito “The Fugitive.” ….