‘Starchitect’ and Jefferson Medalist Ito Drops in on Graduate Architecture Class

Hundreds of students filled the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall Auditorium Friday to hear Tokyo-based ‘starchitect’ Toyo Ito speak. Afterward, many lined up to get his autograph. Such is the fame of the 2014 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, who was on Grounds to receive the medal.

Ito is a world-renowned celebrity architect who combines conceptual innovation with superbly executed buildings, as in his masterpiece, the Sendai Mediatheque in Japan, which reimagines what a public museum and library should be in the digital age.

So six graduate students in the School of Architecture understood how privileged they were when Ito joined their graduate-level studio course on Friday to critique their work.

“When our team was selected to present, I was nervous, yet excited,” Sarah Miller said. “It isn’t very often during an academic career that you’re able to engage with a celebrated architect who has pushed the customary limits of design.”

Meeting face-to-face with Ito was a great honor, said students Imon Teng and Zhifei Cheng, both of whom are from China. Cheng said Ito is his favorite architect in the world. Teng described Ito as a “celebrity who we usually see in books.”

The studio class has spent the semester envisioning ways to transform Atlantic City, N.J. – a city with 40,000 residents and 24 million visitors annually – with a new “cultural axis” running from the historic boardwalk to the heart of the city, cutting through the major casino and resort vicinity, architecture professors Manuel Bailo Esteve and Matthew Jull explained.

Two teams of three students each presented their designs, and Ito gave them feedback. The review took place in the newly revitalized Shure Studio in Campbell Hall, named for alumnus Michael A. Shure.

“I found the theme of the studio very good and was impressed by the sincere and thought-provoking attitude of the students during the presentations,” Ito said.

“Although I could only give intuitive comments at that time, I believe that they will give more fruitful final presentations, and their work as a whole is very promising.” 

Students described the experience as “amazing,” “inspiring” and “precious.”

Ito’s commentary was thought-provoking and complimentary, Miller said. “I was particularly impressed with Mr. Ito’s immediate understanding of the project after a brief introduction, and his pointed advice for helping us drive our group project further.”

He “encouraged our reading of the existing conditions” and discussed “opportunities for investigating speed as a driver of our public space design,” she said.

Ito suggested to one team that they make their buildings “more friendly” to better welcome visitors, Cheng said.

Ito spoke a mix of English and Japanese, assisted by a translator, but despite the language barrier, “He had great communication with the students and a good sense of humor,” Alex Ayala, the course’s graduate teaching assistant, said.

“His visit to Campbell Hall and his lecture at Old Cabell Hall reminded me why I decided to pursue this discipline,” Ayala said. “He showed the great joy and wisdom that one can get from design, and his work shows that architecture education never really stops – it can continue to evolve and take many shapes in our professional lives.”

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