Tadao Ando is one of the most well-known architects in Japan, not only because of his world-renowned professional achievements but also because of his unique personality which makes him a magnetic figure even among people who have little interest in architecture. He is the “potential energy” – to use a term from physics –that is capable of shaking social norms and conventions.
“Tadao Ando: Endeavors,” an exhibit held at The National Art Center, Tokyo (Sep 27- Dec 18, 2017) showcased his inexhaustible energy and the sheer volume of Ando’s work which stretches across five decades and multiple continents. It was a huge success, drawing more than 200,000 visitors including many who were not familiar with architecture.
Everyone would agree that Ando is extraordinary. He is a self-taught architect with no college degree who, against all odds, eventually won the prestigious Pritzker Prize. He is an ex-professional boxer with indomitable spirit and inexhaustible energy who wants to keep the bar very high for everyone he works with. His anecdotes, not just his works, are all unique, jaw-dropping and often very funny when he tells them. He is an outlier who deviates from the average and escapes any labeling.
Ando’s extraordinary power developed since he had to overcome a series of difficulties throughout his life. At the press conference for the exhibit, he described his life and career as emerging from ,despair. His family didn’t have enough money to send him to college even though he wanted to become an architect. When he finally passed the license exam and became an architect, no one hired him because of his poor credentials. In recent years, he had underwent a series of major surgeries, having malfunctioning organs removed. He’s always had to deal with desperate situations, says Ando, and the hardship has made him strong and resilient.
So it is symbolic that he designed his own office to be full of bookshelves, which are literally full of books, as you can see. As he keeps saying that “architecture needs to be experienced,” one of the focus points of Ando’s own life has been to read as much as he could. He grew up deprived of opportunities to learn and pursue academic advancement. Books were one of his few teachers, and books represented his hope to make his dreams come true. He needed them so badly when he was young. Today, the books sit in his office as if they were his primary assets. If his life has been a struggle to make impossible possible, reading has been an integral part. And the very process of doing so – his “endeavors” – shaped Ando’s belief and the essence of his architecture.
By the way, while all the five floors are filled with books, there are no elevators in his office. “I don’t need anything convenient and easy,” says Ando. In his life that is full of “endeavors,” there is no room for easy, comfortable and efficient solutions or compromises. His endeavors are about persevering, and to this day at the age 76, he still lives them.
The exhibit was divided into six themes:
- Void spaces
- Reading the site
- Building upon what exists, creating that which does not exist
In the early days of his career, Ando designed more than a hundred houses, including many smaller ones. Those experiences cemented his aesthetic focus that leveraged exposed, cast-in-place concrete and minimalist geometric form. Residential houses also helped bolster his fundamental belief that architecture needed to be “experienced.” When you “experience” a piece of architecture called a house, you would be doing so through the act of “living.” For Ando, it meant facing nature by leveraging your own resilience. By designing many “unconventional” (which is a kinder way to describe “inconvenient”) houses, he challenged our fundamental belief that the act of living and/or life is better when its easier and more comfortable.
The Row House in Sumiyoshi (1976)
The Row House in Sumiyoshi, 1976, Osaka, Osaka (Photo by Shinkenchiku-sha)
The “Row House of Sumiyoshi” is one of Ando’s most famous earlier works that made his reputation. This tiny house shook the convention of Japanese traditional housing, as well as the everyday practice of modern architecture and construction methods.
The setting of the “Row House of Sumiyoshi” was similar to the nagaya in which Ando grew up. He transfused his own nagaya experiences into the new house – in an unexpected and bold way – part due to the very limited budget.
The Koshino House (1981)
The aerial pictures of Ando’s works are always fascinating because they show how they are encapsulated in the surrounding environment. The Koshino House, built for an accomplished fashion designer Hiroko Koshino in the middle of a nice neighborhood surrounded by trees, almost looks as if it’s half sunk underground. That’s because the house leverages the natural slope of the site and some areas are subterranean.
The Koshino House, 1981/1984, Ashiya, Hyogo (Photo by Shinkenchiku-sha)
Ando leveraged the slope and designed the house so that light would come in at various angles – top, bottom and the sides. The light was often accompanied by the green reflections of the trees growing in the yard, which appeared at eye-level when you were sitting in some of the semi-underground rooms. The light intensified its potential in this house. From direct, unblocked sunlight and subdued, subtle shadows to a single ray that sharply penetrated the dark area, the light showed many faces on the bare concrete surface which played a role of a blank canvass.
In order to pursue aesthetic perfection, Ando did not hesitate to sacrifice comfort. Ando would joke: “Everytime I see Koshino, she complains that she needs to wear skiing gear in winter because it’s so cold.”
The 4 x 4 House (2003)
Ando’s belief that humans must face nature through the act of living culminated in the “4 x 4 House.” It is a four-story “tiny house” with a basement built in Kobe, Japan which looks like an out-of-place tree that grew right on the ocean front. The name came from the fact that it was about 4 meters wide and 4 meters deep (the top floor has the ceiling that is also 4 meters high).
The house is connected to the beach via small stairs outside the building. The top floor is slightly staggered toward the ocean and has almost wall-wide, large windows, making it look like a lighthouse. This is not a house that pursues comfort or convenience, declared Ando. Because it was made of concrete with large glass windows, it was supposed to be hot in summer and cold in winter. There were no elevators, so the residents had to walk up and down stairs just to reach the bathroom from the living room. All the details were focused to maximize the feel the ocean, which can be calm and pleasant, but also wild and intense at other times.
Model of 4 x 4 House (Kobe) ©安藤忠雄展2017
Most of Ando’s works stand out for their geometrically minimalist design which is emphasized by inorganic, monotonous surfaces of exposed cast-in concrete. But its real beauty can only be achieved when it collides with the power of nature, notably natural light.
But then what is light? It is the source of energy. It is a direct, unstoppable moving force that gives living creatures the potential called “life.” It is the warmth and radiance that provides power to all organic existences on Earth, including humans.
On the other hand, concrete is something humans invented to build things that are hard, sturdy and stable. It is used to shield humans from natural threats which are ever-changing, uncertain and unstable. When you are inside a concrete building, you become oblivious to the outside environment because of the divisive nature of concrete. It is the opposite of nature and disconnects us from it.
But Ando let the two collide. For him, concrete is a readily available, flexible, editable and cost-effective material. Instead of using it as a divider, he leverages it to emphasize the power of nature. In his works, light travels inside the building and hits the minimalist, bare concrete surface. Then it bounces off to hit another surface. The visible tension coming from the collision of natural and artificial forces that leave a strong impression of potential. It makes us feel and think.
The Church of the Light (1986)
Church of the Light (Photo: Masaru Tezuka ＜BOIL>)
The “Church of the Light” was built in Ibaraki City, Osaka in 1989 and is one of Ando’s most famous works. He created a cross using horizontal and vertical slits cut into the east wall that was 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. A replica of the Church of the Light was installed at the exhibition site. Read more about it: Tadao Ando: The Church of the Light.”
The Church on the Water (1988)
Church on the Water, 1988, Yufutsu-gun, Hokkaido (Photo: Yoshio Shiratori)
The Church on the Water is located in the middle of the vast natural area in Hokkaido, the Northern island of Japan. There are many ski resorts in the area, and the Church on the Water is part of one of the resort’s wedding facilities. Leveraging the vast expanse of nature which is abundant in water, the cross stands in the middle of a pond, overlooked by the rugged mountains. Light intensifies its sacredness when it’s reflected by water, fogs, snow or trees – a variety of natural phenomena.
The phrase “void spaces” is a translation of the Japanese word “余白 (yohaku),” which is one of the aesthetics that constitute Japanese traditional beauty. Yohaku are void, blank spaces or margins intentionally left to highlight the significance of the condensed elements, or the aesthetic focus. It amplifies the beauty or the intensity of the artworks in an inspiring way as exhibited in a haiku – world’s shortest poetic form – or kare-sansui, the Zen rock garden which celebrates the absence of water and plants.
But “yohaku” is literally marginalized in today’s world in which efficiency is everything. “Blank space? What a waste. Put something in that will generate money!” – That’s how modern economy typically sees yohaku. You no longer see empty spaces, especially if you live in urban areas. As a result, life feels crowded and busy everywhere, filled with someone’s “economic opportunities.” We feel stressed, overwhelmed and inhumane.
So when Ando designs buildings in large cities, he deliberately inserts voids. He actually came up with the “urban guerrilla” concept in the 60’s, suggesting that people needed to quietly “steal back” voids from the efficiency-driven economy like a ninja, and build whatever the power of individual people – not large corporations with a lot of money – could create.
“Yohaku” in Ando’s urban works is where potential is concentrated, and where people could “feel” and “experience” the essence of his architecture – the direct interaction of humans and nature.
The Omotesando Hills (2006)
Omote-sando is the classy, higher-end area of the “Harajuku” district in Tokyo, which entered mainstream pop culture with Gwen Stefani’s video for “Harajuku Girls.” The area has been the epicenter of Japanese youth culture, art and fashion for decades. A slew of boutiques, shops, restaurants, hair salons and galleries have been competing to become the coolest and the newest in Tokyo, attracting many young people. The history of Omote-sando is the history of pop culture in Japan.
The Dojunkai Apartment had been sitting at the heart of Omote-sando for almost a century. Built right after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the Bauhaus-style condominium complex has been the hubs for artists, designers, musicians and creators in various areas. It was where trends had been generated and disseminated. When it finally came time to demolish the apartment, many people were shocked and felt sad.
When Ando was commissioned to direct the renovation of the Dojunkai Apartment to open a new shopping mall, he was committed to preserving the experiences and memories surrounding the old complex. So, he made sure that the height of the new buildings wouldn’t exceed the zelkova trees that lined the Omote-sando Boulevard (as shown in the picture), which were paired with the old apartment in peoples’ memories. This meant that the majority of the new facilities would be underground. Since the Omote-sando area is on a gradual slope, Ando introduced the same slope inside the buildings. The atrium style building has layers of sloped ramps at the center, which gradually and naturally connect outside and inside and also each floor. The voids are vertically straight and horizontally slanted to be in harmony with the outside environment.
Although the cost was prohibitive to preserve the entire old apartment, Ando managed to leave one unit at the end of the new complex, connecting the past to the present and the future.
The Omotesando Hills, 2006, Shibuya, Tokyo (Photo: Mitsuo Matsuoka)
The Shanghai Poly Grand Theatre (2014)
The Shanghai Poly Grand Theatre opened in 2014 in the suburbs of Shanghai. It is also called the “theater by water” because it sits right next to two man-made waterways. Its basic shape is a simple rectangle, but the building is penetrated by several tunnels that cross at different angles and at different points. Ando’s signature concrete, encased by the glass walls, exhibits linear geometry, but a variety of curves emerge inside the rectangle due to the tunnels that connect inside and outside in unexpected ways. The aluminum that lines the tunnels is painted brown so that it resembles wood. In the voids, people can walk, sit, rest and feel the breeze from the waterways.
Shanghai Poly Grand Theatre, 2014, Shanghai, China (Photo: Shigeo Ogawa)
Ando’s architecture connects with the environment, or rather, is designed to constitute the part of surrounding environment. But his philosophy is beyond so-called sustainable architecture or green building. It is much more crude and wild. He does not try to smooth out the differences between nature and our world in order to secure comfort. Rather, he connects humans directly with raw nature. When he says “read the site,” he is not suggesting to take advantage of the natural environment to facilitate our activities. He is suggesting to find the best way for humans to meet the real, honest face of nature.
Naoshima Project (1988~)
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, it suffered from environmental degradation by the 80’s 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.
As has been the case with many remote areas with only marginal economic productivity, Naoshima has been financially vulnerable. As it was forced to rely almost solely on the copper refinery to support the residents, the population changed as the the copper industry first grew and then shrank. There were about 7,000 residents in the 70’s, but the population kept decreasing. Today there are only about 3,000 people in the area of about 14 km2.
On this small island, Ando, collaborating with Soichiro Fukutake (the son of Tetsuhiko) who bought substantial areas in the island, designed the museum area in the southern beach area. There are the Benesse House Museum, the Chichu Art Museum and the Lee Ufan Museum. The now-famous “Pumpkin” by Yayoi Kusama is also in this area by the beach, overlooking the vast ocean.
Over time, the project expanded to re-vitalize the old downtown area called Honmura which is on the east side of the island. It has been a huge undertaking. Not only had they built new museums and facilities, but they have also planted enormous numbers of trees to restore the forests that used to cover the island (And you can see the amazing progress in the picture). The project also transformed the economic viability of the island – from copper dependent to self-dependent. As the Naoshima Project started, people started to collaborate, experiment, enterprise to create new opportunities to generate values surrounding modern art in this small island. Local people are increasingly involved and energized. Once an economically distressed remote island, Naoshima now attracts surprising number of tourists and art lovers from all over the world.
The Chichu Art Museum (Underground Art Museum) is one of the most popular destinations in Naoshima. In order to preserve the beautiful scenery, Ando buried most of the buildings underground. The way the light comes through the ceilings into the subterranean rooms augments the beauty of the artworks by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria, which are central to the permanent exhibition. Of course Claude Monet is the leading impressionist whose appreciation of light made him unique. The Chichu Art Museum reflects Ando’s philosophy that architecture has to “read” the site – to be perfectly embraced by the surrounding environment, and to embrace the people and artworks that will be inside it.
Naoshima was a large-scale community revitalization project, rather than a commercial re-development project. And at the heart of its huge success lays the strong belief shared by the people involved in the project, including Ando, that local people and the local environment had to be the source of potential, power and creative force. For Ando, the people who would use the building and the environment that surrounds it are much more important than the building itself. Ando tries to disseminate that belief to the world, especially now that the Earth is ailing and its sustainability is in serious question. He believes that renovation and revitalization of existing buildings and preserving heritage is far more importation than building new ones. As architecture is a unique junction where the past, the present and the future meet, Ando attempts to transform old buildings where history meets the future.
Punta Della Dogana (2009)
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.
Punta della Dogana, 2009, Venice, Italy
(© Palazzo Grassi SpA. Foto: ORCH, orsenigo_chemollo)
Ando tried to preserve old structure and materials as much as possible, but it was harder than demolishing the entire building and constructing a new one. Old materials such as wooden trusses, bricks and stones had to be restored one by one. In some parts, old stone tiles were first taken, then planed down and polished before re-installed.
He inserted his signature design feature, an exposed cast-in concrete box, at the center of the dome. He wanted to marry – or rather collide – history, the present (architecture leveraging concrete, steel and glass) and the future (modern art). The concrete was finished with the best quality you could expect (It was done by the Italian professionals who’ve worked with Ando before). It looks smooth and fluid. Ando hoped that the blunt collision of the old with solid materials/designs, and light-looking, minimalist concrete/glass would make visitors think: “What is the history? Where am I now and where are we going?”
Ando plants trees. He often plants as part of his architecture projects, but he also plants as environmental restoration projects in places which he does not design or build. As he did in Naoshima, he has been planting trees in Kansai, Tokyo and in many areas. When he does it, he is not just a famous architect. He is a leading fundraiser. Whenever he goes, people follow him, and donate. He knows the power and importance of money, so he does not hesitate to get involved in fundraising to help restore the power of people and the environment, the two elements bonded inseparably in his architectural philosophy. 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.
As a magnetic figure full of energy, he is concerned that the world we live in is losing positive energy. By planting trees and empowering the environment and the people, he hopes to invigorate our society. His endeavors continue.