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Toyo Ito's Biggest Building: A Stadium That's Secretly a Solar Power Plant

2013 Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito began his career with luminous and transparent houses in his native Japan. But a sports stadium put him on the map.

Toyo Ito's ascendancy into the architectural Pantheon—solidified by his winning the Pritzker Prize today—began with the luminous and transparent houses and public buildings he designed in his native Japan. But it was his largest and most unlikely commission, designing a stadium for Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city, that would land him on the map of architectural kings.

Known for its surfside location and abundant sun, tropical Kaohsiung served as host of the July 2009 World Games, a once-every-four-years event featuring sports not included in the Olympics, like tug of war, netball, orienteering, and Latin dance. It was a radical departure for Ito (he'd never designed anything like a stadium before), and the design was radical, too. Dramatically light for such a heavy building, it looked as unusual as the sports it hosted, rugby sevens and flying disc. But its secret weapon was its solar-powered skin, which made it the world's first stadium to draw most of its energy from the sun.

"Since solar panels were required for this project, I thought to use them to cover almost the entire stadium seating roof," Ito told me in an interview in 2009. While photovoltaic panels are often tacked onto buildings—including other stadiums, most notably the Stade de Suisse in Bern—the ones used in Kaohsiung are anything but an add-on. The heavy reliance on steel at stadiums (think of the Bird's Nest in Beijing) often give these buildings an environmental footprint that green technology can't easily offset. In Taiwan, a new logic is at play. Ito went all out, covering the entirety of the 22,000 square-meter roof in waves of 8,844 photovoltaic panels, embedded in frames of laminated glass. Ito also set the stadium on a 15-degree angle along the north–south axis to protect spectators from sun and maximize natural ventilation.

The stadium's lightness extends to its aesthetics. On a formal level, Ito was addressing a question that has animated his work on other public buildings, like concert halls and libraries: how to bind the inside and outside. "The interior space of stadiums is generally closed and isolated from its surroundings," he told me in 2009, when I wrote about the building for Domus. So he designed the roof—a spectacular web of 32 spiraling steel pipes set atop a primary skeleton of concrete ribs—so that it unfurls on one of the stadium's short sides, with two extensions that curl outwards.

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