A builder of dreams

by Tai Kawabata

Chuta Ito was born in 1867, the same year as the great novelist Soseki Natsume — whom he outlived by four decades. Like Natsume, too, Ito — who pioneered the historical and theoretical study of architecture in Japan — had a wry sense of humor, and from 1914 until his death in 1954 he produced no fewer than 3,717 satirical cartoons, as well as a vast number of sketches of the mythical and fantastical creatures that inhabited his vivid and whimsical imagination.

Many of these sketches and postcards are among a treasure-trove of Ito-related materials recently discovered at the University of Tokyo, from which some 300 items have been selected for display in “The World of Architect Chuta Ito,” an exhibition running at the Watari-Um museum in Jingumae, Tokyo, till Aug. 31.

The exhibition is nothing if not a testament to the astonishing breadth of Ito’s interests. University of Tokyo professor Hiroyuki Suzuki, a supervisor of the exhibition, says of Ito: “He is a very difficult person to grasp. The impression we get is that though his interests and activities were wide, his style looks old. Nevertheless, there appears to be something deep and interesting about him.”

Born the year before the Meiji Restoration, Ito was the second son of a doctor in Yonezawa, in present-day Yamagata Prefecture. However, from elementary school on, he was educated in Tokyo, where his talents soon began to show themselves. Among the exhibits showing here is a beautiful ukiyo-e of a woman in kimono, painted by Ito at the tender age of 17.

In 1892, after graduating from the architecture department at the then Imperial University, Ito went on to graduate school, becoming the first Japanese architect to undertake higher study. It was while he was there that, still only age 27, he proposed that zoka-gaku (the study of making houses) — the term then used to refer to architecture — be replaced by kenchiku, meaning to construct firmly and lay a solid foundation. His proposal was adopted, ushering in a new era of architectural thinking in Japan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for one already so outstanding in his field, after gaining his Ph.D. Ito was appointed professor at his alma mater in 1905, by which time the university had been renamed the Imperial University of Tokyo.

Though Suzuki regards Ito as “a person who was born and lived in step with Japan’s modernization, which began in the Meiji Era,” he believes it would be a mistake to label him as a “modernist” — since his genius was too individual for that.

“In the midst of modernization, he was a person who placed great value on his own visions. . . . To him, what was important was whether he could realize his own vision of the world.”

Beside the satirical and fantastical, Ito’s outlook was influenced by his extensive travels. He undertook an adventurous round-the-world trip from March 1902 to June 1905. Defying the custom that a scholar had to study in Europe or North America for three years before being appointed as professor, Ito chose to conduct his fieldwork mainly in Asia. “Ito apparently wanted to trace the transmission route of Buddhism and the roots of Japanese culture,” explains Suzuki.

As a result, Ito spent 14 months in China, then nine months in Burma, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After that he repeatedly visited the Middle East and Europe, then made North America his final port of call before returning to Japan.

During his travels, Ito produced many detailed color sketches and took thousands of photographs using glass dry plates. Many of those plates have been developed for the first time to make prints for the current exhibition.

With his horizons now widened in every sense, Ito developed an extensive theory of architectural evolution, which encompassed European, Middle Eastern and Asian building styles. True to his individualistic nature, however, some of Ito’s theories were harder to swallow than others — such as his theory that the shape of the columns of Horyu-ji Temple in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture, came from ancient Greece. Likewise, some of Ito’s design projects never came to fruition, and his plans for some of these are included in the exhibition.

There are, however, numerous buildings designed by Ito that have survived to this day, including Kyoto’s Heian Shrine (1895) and, in Tokyo, Meiji Shrine (1920), the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Hall (1930) and Tsukiji Honganji Temple (1934).

Thanks to the current exhibition, we now have Ito’s more ephemeral — but no less interesting — works to set alongside these masterpieces of wood and stone, giving us for the first time a rounded picture of an outstanding man of his age.