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Ito's invisible city

Toyo Ito: Blurring Architecture 1971-2005 by Ulrich Schneider et al. Charta, 1999. 240pp. £34. Distributor Art Books International 020 7720 1503

Toyo Ito's Tower of the Winds in Yokohama is one of the most striking images of Japanese architecture of the 1980s. Exuding an appropriate extravagance - it is, after all, rather more than a ventilation shaft needs to be - and flashing with technology, it still suggests something which, at any rate to an ignorant Occidental, might have some connection to Japanese tradition. At the very least it is a symbol of the disjunction of a society riven between its technological capability and its respect for tradition.

The Sendai Mediatheque, due to open this year, confirms this engagement of architecture and technology. Ito has suggested its layering of it and structure is no more than a contemporary update of Le Corbusier's Maison Dom-ino. If Ito's exact contemporary Tadao Ando banishes these concerns in his search for a pure concrete utopia, Ito himself is closer to another contemporary, Itsuko Hasegawa, and the rather older Arata Isozaki, in seeking architectural possibilities in the cyberworld of modern technology.

This publication is the catalogue for an exhibition in Aachen and then Antwerp. Its title, Blurring Architecture, comes from an essay in which Ito expands on his position. There are, he argues, two parallel worlds: one to which the living biological body adapts, and another where the extended body produced by the electronic network is at home. This is hardly original, but Ito locates the first in the Modernist conceptions of Mies' Friedrichstrasse tower scheme and Corbusier's City for Three Million Inhabitants, while the second is invisible. His task, he says, is to make this 'invisible different city' visible. The result is blurring architecture, 'the mingling of these two spaces which have stood in mutual contrast throughout the 20th century'.

It's a thesis which is challenging and presumptuous in equal measure. The presumption, however, tends to dominate the catalogue. This is partly because it is divided into sections on reproduction, drawing, simulation, model, photography and text, which probably relate to divisions in the exhibition, but are rather unsatisfying in published form.

Nowhere do we get an overall depiction of the Sendai Mediatheque, but we do get an awful lot on White U, a small house which Ito designed in 1975 for his sister in distressing circumstances - her husband had just died and left her with two young children. That it was demolished in 1997 may add to its personal emotive resonance but that is hardly enough to justify such extensive coverage. Ito might counter that he is trying to convey his blurring concept, but blurred depiction of a blurred concept is rather hard to pull off.

The essays, plagued by the problems of multiple translation (from Japanese into German and English), are only of limited use. Many of them refer to 'we' when discussing Ito's work, suggesting that the authors come out of his office and follow an approved line. Ito's keynote essay quotes 'the philosopher Koji Taki' on 'the house as living experience', yet as Taki has just turned up with an essay of his own, it is hard to take the quote as objective.

Yet whatever the irritations which arise from this volume - and they probably stem from being overambitious in language and content - its images manage to intrigue. There can be no doubt that here is an architect who seriously engages with difficult material, in a way which sometimes eludes explanation. Perhaps a trip to Antwerp is the only remedy.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher. The Toyo Ito exhibition is at de Singel International Arts Centre, Antwerp, until 26 March

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