When something is described as awe-inspiring, the tendency is to think big. While Tadao Ando’s buildings do indeed inspire awe, there is nothing grandiose about his work, which at its heart is about relating the body to its immediate surroundings and to the natural world beyond.
Born in 1941, Ando is a poet in concrete who learnt as a child how to work in three dimensions in timber from a carpenter who lived across the road from his Osaka home. The lessons have been invaluable: Ando’s superb handling of the wooden shuttering for moulding concrete ensures his buildings’ silky perfection – some moulds are even varnished internally to create the ultimate finish. The bolt-holes in the shuttering that stud his unadorned walls have become a trademark.
Ando has won nearly every architecture award going, but he does not even have an architecture degree. After starting out as a boxer he trained the hard way, working in local architects’ offices, travelling and observing the traditions of his Japanese home and the Western architectural canon overseas. He saved for weeks to buy a volume on Le Corbusier, tracing and retracing the drawings until the pages were blackened, and later named his dog after the master. Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright were also great inspirations.
When he set up his practice in 1969 his initial works were in timber but it was his first tiny row house in concrete, the unassuming Azuma House in Osaka (1976), that put him on the map – ‘the point of origin for my subsequent work’ – creating a quiet internal world accessed through a doorway that is a mere slit in the facade.
In a series of religious projects in Japan – the Church on the Water at Tomamu (1988), the Church of the Light in Osaka (1989) and the Shingonshu Honpukuji Water Temple, Hyogo (1991) – religious awe and awe before beauty are brought together without pomposity. Concrete interacts with the elemental qualities of light and water: the shadow of a crucifix across a pond, the play of light through a simple cross aperture, the experience of stepping down through a lotus pool to a vermilion meditation space that ignites at sunset.
It has been observed that there is something of the temple in the ascetic calm of all Ando’s buildings (apart from his own studio – a five-storey galleried madhouse around a central space from which he delivers his homilies). This is true of his numerous museum projects – the circular court of the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum, Kagawa (1992), and the contemporaneous Kumamoto-prefectural Forest of Tombs Museum, Kumamoto – a building type that lends itself to the sacral. For all its sereni¬ty, his work is an attempt to resolve the conflict between the self and the business of the social world and architecture is his method of manipulating that relationship. He has defined architecture as ‘the box that provokes’.
Since the early 1990s he has been working internationally -France (Meditation Space, UNESCO), UK (Piccadilly Gardens Regeneration, Manchester), Italy (Fabrica, Benetton Communication Research Centre), Germany (Vitra Seminar House) and the US (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) – but he remains firmly rooted in his home town Osaka and the les¬sons of his childhood.Visit Website