When he says why he especially likes Sendai Mediatheque, the public library that ranks among his most famous works, Toyo Ito, the Japanese architect awarded the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize this week, says he likes to see people napping and relaxing inside the transparent structure.
Ito, the sixth Japanese to win the honor likened to a Nobel Prize for architecture, said the field needs to evolve to suit changing times, to "be more open to nature."
"Architects have made architecture too complex. We need to simplify it and use a language that everyone can understand," Ito said at one of his offices in Tokyo, a strictly functional place whose only frills were the lavish bouquets of orchids, lilies and other blooms sent to congratulate him for the award.
Ito's buildings, from libraries and theaters to offices and homes, have won praise for their fluid, airy beauty and balance between nature and function, the physical and virtual worlds. Among the best-known works are the spiral White O residence in Marbella, Chile, the angular 2002 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London and the arch-laced, curving Tama Art University in suburban Tokyo.
Architecture needs to change to suit changing needs brought on by declining populations, climate change and scarce resources, he said, likening a more sustainable design approach to the growth of a tree, which expands, branch by branch, in relation to the light and its surroundings.
"We have to base architecture on the environment. Whatever age it is, people are people," he said. "I want it to be fresh."
The Sendai Mediatheque is a library transparent even down to the internal tubes used for its ventilation and wiring - like the tubes in a human body, he says - was lauded for withstanding the massive earthquake that struck offshore from the city in northeastern Japan in March 2011.
"It is like a wall-less gallery space, where people are able to walk around. You often see people taking naps or couples behaving if they are on dates," he said.
Though the Sendai is boxy in design, many of his works are enlivened with webs, arches and curbs that deflect the traditional grid structure that underlies most modern buildings.
Ito has been involved in several projects aimed at aiding survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters, which killed nearly 20,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless. The aim is to create communal spaces where residents displaced to temporary housing units can chat and find connections with their neighbors, he said.
"His buildings are complex, yet his high degree of synthesis means his works attain a level of calmness, which ultimately allows the inhabitants to freely develop their life and activities in them," said jury member, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena.
In accepting the prize, Ito said he was determined to "never fix my architectural style and never be satisfied with my works." Completing a work, Ito said, makes him "painfully aware of my own inadequacy, and it turns into energy to challenge the next project."
He will receive a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion at a ceremony May 29 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, the Pritzker Prize was established in 1979 by the late entrepreneur Jay A. Pritzker and his wife, Cindy, to honor "a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture."