Tadao Ando is one of the most well-known architects in Japan, not only because of his professional achievements are world-renowned but because of his unique personality which makes him a magnetic figure even among people who have little interest in architecture. He is “potential energy” – to use a term from physics –that is capable of shaking social norms and conventions.
Press conference for “TADAO ANDO：ENDEAVORS” at the National Art Center, Tokyo
If you’ve ever heard Ando speak, you might have been surprised by his frank and direct way of talking. He is from Osaka, the second largest city in Japan that has a very different culture in comparison with Tokyo or Kyoto. Osaka has always been a city of commerce. People like to be practical and reasonable, rather than looking elegant or sophisticated. They love talking and negotiating. They are blunt, talk fast, loud, and joke a lot. They also love taking care of others. They are not afraid of “meddling,” even if that ends up in arguments. In Osaka, which is as densely populated as Tokyo, personal distance is very close both physically and emotionally. It is a stark difference from Tokyo, where people are committed to securing as much personal space as possible in a city where everything is so close.
Ando is an Osakan rather than Japanese. In his world, various elements co-exist, colliding, repelling and disagreeing with each other. He boldly absorbs all the differences, and throws them into one pot. In physics, “potential energy” is the “energy possessed by a body by a virtue of its position relative to others, stress within itself, electric charge, and other factors.” Because Ando refuses to smooth out his differences relative to others – which we usually do to avoid disputes – his potential energy remains large. And because he does not conceal the difference, nor try to find compromises among different stakeholders, factors or elements in his projects or design, the potential energy in his architecture remains significant. That energy overwhelms us, who usually learn to follow convention, compromise, and prioritize modesty in order to make this world a more efficient and easier place to live. But Ando has zero interest and tolerance for things that are efficient or easy. He knows that nature is not easy, and our potential will be compromised if we choose to rely on easy solutions. He is a wild beast that refuses to be tamed.
Tadao Ando: Early life
Ando was born in 1941 and grew up in an old, densely populated, working-class neighborhood in Osaka in the midst of the chaos following the defeat in WWII. Because of the family situation, he was adapted by his grand parents, but his grandfather died when he was still small. He lived with his grandmother in a meager nagaya (a Japanese traditional multiplex) house about 12′ wide and 48′ deep. It had little insulation and lighting. It rattled when the wind blew. Cold air leaked in through the broken glass. Weather directly affected his everyday life, challenging him. Nature was strong. Nature was overwhelming. He probably also grew up watching how natural light came through the shoji (a Japanese screen door made of wood and paper), changing its intensity, angles, colors and the warmth as the day passed. His experience in the nagaya formed the foundation of his architecture.
He was a disobedient, aggressive and independent kid. His grandmother never spoiled him, and left him alone to do his own thing even when he was young. As an intense child in a tough environment, he grew up using his senses and abilities to the fullest. He cried hard when he was sad, fought with friends when he was angry, ventured outside without supervision, and used his creativity to make things from scraps.
When he was 12 years or so a carpenter came to his house to do some repairs. Andao was fascinated by the skill and dedication involved in the craft and became passionate about building houses. But he didn’t have enough money to go to college. He had to support his grandmother after he graduated from high school. So he decided to become a professional boxer, because he thought he could earn more than doing the small jobs he could find without a college degree.
But he couldn’t give up his dream to become an architect. He loved building things, and admired Le Corbusier. He was also struck by the construction process of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium designed by Kenzo Tange, which was being built for the Tokyo Olympics 1964. He taught himself architecture, eventually passing an exam to receive his license. In the meantime, he spent 4 years traveling to see the world, including many architectural masterpieces. He was struck by the “Notre Dame du Haut” by Le Corbusier. It confirmed his belief that architecture was a device to enable people to gather, and the collective energy and shared emotions were what made architecture special. He was also impressed by its interior that had carefully designed openings on the concrete walls. The light that came through the windows changed its intensity and color as the time went by, casting different shades on people praying.
He opened his own architectural studio when he came back to Japan. He was 28. But no one hired this young architect with no experience and no college degree. As he described later, he always had to handle desperate situations in his early life and career, which defined his approach and passion towards architecture. See some of his landmark works that showcase his large “potential energy,” with their intense encounters between nature and humans.
Tadao Ando: 住吉の長屋 (The Row House of Sumiyoshi) 1976
Ando did something unimaginable: he inserted a minimalist, geometric concrete box into a row of wooden houses. Whereas the surrounding wooden structure was inherently semi-open toward the environment, his concrete box did not have any openings except for a patio that was inserted in the middle of the house. In an otherwise closed and isolated space, the patio abruptly included the outside environment.
It was brutal. When it rained, the rain invaded the house through the patio. The family in the living room had to use an umbrella to go to the bathroom because they had to cross the patio. It was cold in winter since there was no heating. But he had no intention to “sugarcoat” the real face of nature by removing its negative sides. He believed in the strength of nature, and also the resilience humans inherently possessed to deal with the force of nature.
The house eventually won the Architectural Institute of Japan prize in 1979, which made Ando a national figure. People were stunned by his fearless approach to challenge the convention in every way.
Tadao Ando: 小篠邸 The Koshino House (1976)
Although people criticized his design for its inconvenience, Ando kept designing many residential houses without compromising. In 1981, Hiroko Koshino, an accomplished fashion designer asked him to design her home in Ashiya, Kobe. In the middle of a nice neighborhood surrounded full of trees, the “Koshino House” has become one of his landmark works in his early career that showcased his philosophy to marry minimalist design, bare concrete with nature, leveraging the power of light.
But again, “marry” is too nice. As with his own “potential energy”, Ando kept the power of nature as intact as possible, and forced the residents to face it. In some areas, nature remained as the threats to the house. In other areas, it intensified its potential. For example, you can see how he elevated the relationship between the light, concrete surface and outside environment. Since the house was on the slope, Ando left some parts of the house buried underground, preserving the natural slope of the site. As a result, the light came in from various angles – top, bottom and the sides – often accompanied by the green reflection of the trees growing in the yard, which appeared at the level of your eyes when you were sitting in some of the semi-underground rooms.
In order to pursue aesthetic perfection, Ando sacrificed comfort. Ando would joke: “Everytime I see Koshino, she complains that she needs to wear skiing gear in winter because it’s so cold.” It is also said that some parts of the house leaked ridiculously when it rained.
Things like leaks are usually called defects. But Ando believes that they are the results of honest collisions between nature and humans. And to our surprise, some – if not all – owners of Ando’s house get it. Both the Sumiyoshi house and the Koshino house were used with little modification for decades.
Tadao Ando: 光の教会 The Church of the Light (1989)
The “Church of the Light” was built in Ibaraki Cilty, Osaka in 1989. It is one of Ando’s most famous works, creating a cross using the horizontal and vertical slits cut into the east wall made of exposed concrete. Stripping away any extra design details, the church highlights the beauty of natural light that falls on the minimalist, bare concrete geometry, which absorbs, reflects and emits light. In 2017, the replica of the Church of the Light was installed at the exhibition site of “Tadao Ando: Endeavors.” Go to the post “Tadao Ando: The Church of the Light.”
Light occupies a special place in Ando’s architecture and his respect toward nature. And it makes a lot of sense. Light is force that creates all potential on Earth. Light is strength, and light is life. But since it is so powerful, it can also create profound darkness or chaos when it collides with other elements. That duality of the light is what Ando is all about. Remember, the magnitude of potential energy is determined by one body’s relative difference from the other, or the differences contained within itself. Light is potential energy in itself, and so is Ando.
Tadao Ando: ベネッセハウス Benesse House and Naoshima Project (1992)
In the 90’s, Ando’s endeavors to marry (or collide) nature and humans started embracing much larger landscape.
Naoshima is an island on the Seto Naikai, the inland sea in Kansai that looks like a small version of the Mediterranean Sea. Once blessed with abundant nature including water, mountains and a variety of natural resources, by the 80’s the Seto Naikai started suffeirng from environmental degradation as a result of rapid industrialization. Especially in Naoshima, the copper refinery emitted harmful SOx, killing trees and agricultural crops.
In 1985, Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founder of Benesse (one of Japan’s largest educational service providers), and Chikatsugu Miyake, the then Mayor of Naoshima, met and agreed to re-invigorate and transform the pollution-ridden island into a global art/education center where children could develope their creativity. Ando joined the team to supervise the designing and building of multiple facilities including hotels and museums.
After more 30 years from its inception, the Naoshima project has become one center of potential energy on its own. It is no longer just an art project, a revitalization/redevelopment project, nor an architectural project. It has become a large collective and dynamic experiment involving artists, local people, businesses, surrounding communities, uaing the history and the environment to question what it means to “live.” People come to Naoshima to experience, think, work, collide, think more and act. And the result is a unique chemistry that truly embraces art as the source of power for each of the individual people who are involved.
Naoshima was bold when the project started at the end of the 80’s, recollects Ando. As part of the planning and designing, he was determined to start planting trees to restore the abundant forests that used to cover the island. He designed some buildings imagining that they would be covered by the trees and foliage they would be planting: “the completion of this building is when it is completely covered by trees,” said Ando about the “Bennese House Oval,” a high-end hotel that features artworks by renowned artists including Richard Long. As daunting as it sounds, he made it happen even though it took decades.
Tadao Ando: Punta della Dogana (2009)
He plants trees and not just Naoshima. He has been planting trees in Kansai, he is planting trees in Tokyo and in many areas, often leading the fundraising efforts. Whenever he goes, people follow him, and donate. As an Osakan, he knows the power and importance of money, so he does not hesitate to get involved in fundraisers to help restore the power of people and the environment, the two elements bonded inseparably in his architectural projects. He wants his architecture to be part of the surrounding environment, and he wants the surrounding environment to stay healthy for centuries. And he means it. That is the reason why he is also actively involved in restoration projects. Because he believes that architecture is a unique juncture of the past, the present and the future, and because the future has to be sustained for centuries, he wants to leverage existing assets, rather than demolishing them and building new ones.
In 2008, a French billionaire and art collector François Pinault and Ando won a competition to restore the “Dogana da Mar” in Venice, Italy, the beautiful old custom house located at the tip of a triangular site where two major canals meet. Built in the 17th century, the complex was not in use for a couple of decades. Pinault came up with an idea to revitalize it as an art museum.
Ando tried to reserve old structure and materials as much as possible, but it was harder than demolishing the entire building to construct a new one. Old materials such as wooden truss, bricks and stones had to be restored one by one. In some parts, old stone tiles were first taken, then planed and polished before re-installed.
He inserted his signature exposed cast-in concrete box at the center of the dome. He wanted to marry – or rather collide – the history, the present (architecture leveraging concrete, steel and glass) and the future (modern art). Concrete was finished with the best quality you could expect (it was done by the Italian professionals who’ve worked with Aodo before). It looks smooth and fluid. Ando hoped that the sincere collision of old, substantial materials/designs and light-looking, minimalist concrete/glass will make visitors think: “What is the history? Where am I now and where are we going?”
Tadao Ando: 頭大仏 The Hill of the Buddha (2016)
One of the most peculiar projects by Ando where nature and humans collide is probably “頭大仏 (means the head Buddha),” or the “Hill of the Buddha,” located in a large-scale semi-public cemetery in Hokkaido, Japan.
The cemetery commissioned Ando to design a renewal project of the facility that surrounded the existing large statue of Buddha. It is a bit of a weird site: a large plot of land in the middle of the countryside, the cemetery has rather random monuments installed here and there, including the replica of Moai statues of Easter Island and Stonehenge of England.
Ando came up with a bizarre idea: to bury the entire statue by enveloping it with a lavender hill, leaving only the top of the head visible from outside, which would stick out of the hole made at the top of the hill. And this is how it looks.
The statue was covered by concrete structure first, and then covered by the soil. After that, as many as 150,000 lavenders were planted.
If you look from afar, you only see the tip of Buddha’s head rises out of the hill. It is surrounded b white snow in winter and purple lavender in spring. Whereas the hill is a large architectural project, it is surrounded by much larger mountains as you can see in the background. It almost looks ridiculous.
In order to get closer to the statue, you have to walk along a pathway that forces you to go over the body of water and through a tunnel, as if you are traveling from this world to another world. Reaching the Buddha, you must look up at him up, lit by the sunlight that comes in through the opening at the top. The contrast is made drastic everywhere; it almost feels surreal.
This can’t be considered an authentic Buddhist monument. It is really peculiar. But there is something unique. It just shows his stunning creativity works to let something this extraordinary happen.