Tadao Ando


Architect, Japan
Tadao Ando, one of the most important contemporary Japanese architects, has pursued
what he calls an architecture that moves people with its poetic and creative power. His
numerous buildings yield intensely meaningful and didactic experiences. In so doing,
Ando has engaged the discipline in the core philosophical questions on humanistic
values, such as the end and purpose of creativity, or what architecture can contribute to
improve the quality of human existence. To study his architecture is to examine how
architecture can conceivably enhance the world as a humanistic discipline.
On the tangible level, Ando’s works may be characterized by their primary walls,
constructed out of limited materials and composed of purely geometric forms. Raw,
unfinished reinforced concrete has been Ando’s material of choice since his earliest
years; later he added a shorter list of wooden buildings. These rather reductive methods,
however, should never be taken to demonstrate a lack of intention, nor do they result in
poor spatial qualities; instead, they are the consequence of Ando’s willful determination
to stage, though intangible they may be, rich architectural experiences. Ando’s simple
materials and forms engage a viewer in an appreciation of architecture, making the piece
significant to that person. Ando is therefore in no respect a formalist—his interest in the
tangible stems solely from his much deeper concern for their ontological relation to the
intangible aspects of architecture.
Ando’s decision to limit his materials and forms comes from the belief that their
intrinsic natures heighten the viewer’s experience of buildings, especially when they
reveal their utmost state of existence. Therefore, Ando compares himself to the poet who
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chooses words carefully and gives them the most appropriate forms of expression. Ando
is keenly interested in and highly knowledgeable about building materials. Once, in the
early 1980s, Ando joined other sculptors, industrial designers, and architects in an
exhibition, held in Tokyo, of objects made out of glass. Ando’s entry, nothing but
numerous sheets of glass laid horizontally on top of one another, brought to the viewer’s
attention the intrinsic nature of float glass. Produced by pouring liquid glass on a flat bed,
ordinary float glass inevitably has minute irregularities on the upper-side surface.
Compiling such sheets magnifies the irregularities, eventually causing them to shatter.
Ando’s project celebrated almost perfect sheets that withstood the challenge and quietly
acknowledged the great care the manufacturer took in producing them.
It is also in building projects that Ando reveals the material’s properties to the physical
extreme with a high degree of care. The intention is to present the materials in their
utmost essence. In fact, Ando believes that the more austere his wall, the more it speaks
to mankind. Ando’s specification of hard concrete mixture stirred up the Japanese
building industry in 1970s, when both contractors and architects were used to the norm of
much softer mixes for the sake of its easy distribution into the forms. The specification
demanded Ando’s attentive supervision, apt instruction, and even some on-site
demonstration—he is said to have tapped the wooden panels incessantly while concrete
was being poured. Once constructed, however, the walls were worthy of a critical gaze
and required no finishing materials that would ordinarily hide the faults of construction.
Ando’s efforts to provide an intense architectural experience rest not only with
materials but also with building form and open space. As one becomes familiar with
Ando’s floor plans, one recognizes in them the persistent recurrence of pure geometry.
However, once inside his building, a visitor is confronted with an enriched sequence of
spatial experiences rather than a mere confirmation of simple forms. The ultimate goal is
to draw attention to the space’s architectural qualities. Ando once commented that an
unexpected experience generates a stronger impression and elevates man’s spirit. In such
an experience, geometry is no longer an abstract factor but instead serves to generate the
real human existence.
Ando’s interests in the spatial sequence led him to explore the potential significance of
vertical circulation. A staircase is, in the utilitarian sense, nothing but the means to
traverse between different floor levels. With Ando, ascending and descending become
almost a spiritual opportunity of preparation before entering a place of religion, as in the
Water Temple (1991) on Awaji Island. Or, as in the Oyamazaki Villa Museum (1996) in
Kyoto, ascension is an awakening experience of one’s body while discovering the
daylight reflected delicately on each step’s rounded nose, which in turn draws attention to
the cascading waterfall just outside, which shines similarly under the sun.
The simplicity and purity of form and materials also support what Ando has called the
nature—in particular, light, air, and water—of his architecture. Ando once commented
that architecture should not be loud but rather that it should let nature, in the guise of
sunlight and wind, speak. His concrete wall captures on its surface an ever-changing
pattern of light and shadow. In return, the austere surface of the wall is enlivened, made
rich with character. When his concrete walls, taller than eye level, bound a space, as in
the Vitra Seminar House (1993) in Weilam-Rhein, Germany, the observer’s attention is
naturally drawn to the sky, both visually and spatially. When an opening is made in a
wall at floor level, as in a number of residential buildings, the sight is directed
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specifically to the pebbled or grassed ground outside. A vertical sheet of water, as in the
Forest of Tombs Museum (1992) in Kumamoto, or a serene horizontal surface of water,
as in the Church on the Water (1998) in Hokkaido, could be waiting to fill the viewer’s
hearing or vision. In these settings, man is in an immediate confrontation with nature,
with only Ando’s architecture serving as a mediator.
Ando has acknowledged that the way he brings nature into architecture could require
some severe living conditions. For example, in Row House Sumiyoshi (1976) in Osaka,
the residents are faced with every element of weather each time they pass the courtyard
on the way from one room to another. Ando’s rather forceful mediation between man and
nature is not always without criticism. Some critics have commented that it leads to a
spatial impoverishment. On the contrary, however, Ando believes that a close
confrontation with nature is crucial for the enrichment of man’s life, which makes man
keenly aware of the season and which nurtures within man a finer sensitivity. This
insistence on austerity and severity reflects his critical stance against modern society’s
materialistic way of life. In this regard, Ando has taken a critical stance against the
modern ways of living that may be materialistically rich and yet spiritually impoverished.
He has made incessant inquiries as to what enriches an individual’s life in the
contemporary age. He considers it critical to discover through his architectural works
what is essential to human life. Ando believes that abundance does not necessarily enrich
one’s life and instead thinks that an architectural space stripped of all excess and
composed simply from bare necessities is true and convincing because it is appropriate
and satisfying. In this understanding of the human conditions, Ando’s architecture
constitutes a challenge to contemporary civilization.
Just as Ando is suspicious of the materialistic view of life, he is equally doubtful about
what many modern and contemporary architects have taken to be an unquestionable goal:
timeliness of design. Rather, Ando’s is a quest for the essence that allows architecture to
endure the test of time. In the same regard, Ando is in a constant search for the kind of
architectural heritages that have withstood various conditions of both time and place.
Ando’s attitude toward architectural heritage should, however, be distinguished from the
Postmodern regionalism in which traditional forms are replicated by modern, universally
available industrial materials and technology, to which Ando is not at all sympathetic. A
pseudo-authentic application is for him not a pursuit of the material’s intrinsic potential
and therefore not essentially architectural.
Ando’s desire to scrutinize the time-earned architectural heritage and to appropriate it
in his projects makes his practice critically cross-cultural. On the one hand, Ando is not
hesitant to draw both from his native Japanese and from other, especially Western,
traditions. On the other hand, his reference to the heritage is always based on the critical
and creative appropriation that often brings the heritage one step beyond its traditional
boundaries. For example, it is not at all difficult to discern a Vitruvian ideal with four
equilateral triangles in his temporary theater, Kara-za in Tokyo (1988). Ando chose the
dodecagon because of a certain order and perfection that the human mind tends to find in
the number 12. This also referred to the 12-year cycle of the Eastern calendar and the 12
months of the Western year. Then Vitruvius’s recommendation is, for Ando, not
restricted to the West but rather is cross-culturally human. For Ando, the dodecagon is
the most appropriate form to give to the project in which theatrical events represent a
construction of a temporary microcosm.
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With Ando’s Church of the Light (1989), a cross becomes more than a Christian
symbol. Instead, a vertical and horizontal linear opening in the otherwise solid concrete
wall is a void at the end of the space. It embodies the sense of time and space beyond
reach, so appropriate for religious contemplation.

It encourages a respect for the past, a
commitment to the future, and a trust in the universal applicability and effectiveness of
one’s particular religious activity, which in turn is limited by its place and time.
Ando has an extraordinary background as an architect. He did not receive any formal
architectural education, nor did he apprentice in an office. As for career preparation,
Ando often refers to the study tours he made on his own and the books he read, including
Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, during the period between 1962 and 1969, before he opened his
architectural office in Osaka. This specific location was also somewhat out of ordinary,
for many well-known, well-established architects are in Tokyo, by far Japan’s largest
center of economic activity. Because of this and because of the strong regional accent in
his Japanese, Ando had often compared himself to a stray warrier, half mockingly and
half proudly. His is the proof that still, in the economically driven contemporary
societies, architecture can provide a spiritual and even sacred dimension of the human
existence.
Although his early practice was limited primarily to residences and small commercial
building in the nearby regions of his office, Ando gradually gained domestic and
international acclaim and extended his practice to cultural and religious institutions. Ando
has received virtually every award there is for an architect, including the Annual Prize
from the Architectural Institute of Japan (1979), the Alvar Aalto Medal from the Finnish
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Association of Architects (1985), the Gold Medal of Architecture from the French
Academy of Architecture (1989), the Arnold W.Brunner Memorial Prize from the
American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1991), the Carlsberg Architectural
Prize of Denmark (1992), the Asahi Prize (1995), the 18th Pritzker Architecture Prize
(1995), the eighth Premium Imperiale (1996), and the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal
Institute of British Architects (1997). His vigorous influence is manifest in the range of
exhibitions of his work, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1991); the
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1993); the Royal Institute of British Architects, London
(1993); the Basilica Palladiana, Vicenza (1995); the Sixth Venice Biennale (1996); the
National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul (1998); and the Royal Academy of Arts,
London (1998). His winning competition entries include the Modern Art Museum of Fort
Worth, Texas (1997); the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art (1997); and the
Manchester City Centre Piccadilly Gardens Regeneration (1999).

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