Tadao Ando – born in 1941 in Osaka, Japan – is certainly one of the most important minds in the contemporary cultural and architectural panorama, who founded his work on the research of an architecture strongly related to the primitive shapes.
In his works, the reference to the Plato’s shapes, such as triangles, squares and circles, recur constantly, leaving a formal sign on the landscape, always unique and recognizable, towards a ritual of shapes that tends to abstract the space, with the intention to give the visitor a reconciled and unique experience.
To reach this purpose, Ando uses the impersonality and coldness of matter and the solemnity of light, most of the times coming from above, used as scenic expedient.
The smooth concrete, casted masterfully, receives on its surface light beams that change minute by minute, day by day, as in a ritual which aim is the eulogy of space and shadows.
Ando taught himself, through an itinerant journey of architecture, during the breaks from his professional career as a professional boxer, in 1965. Like John Ruskin or Goethe, a neo-romantic Tadao Ando discovers Europe, Le Corbusier and many other places that he carefully draws and describes in his travel diaries, assimilating spaces by observation.
A few years later, he opens his own agency in Osaka in 1969, where he starts to design mainly private houses.
His architecture, albeit strongly marked by a formal intention to return to the archetypes of descriptive geometry, remains very much related to the concept of engawa, which means the preservation of an individuality of spaces that makes them autonomous in the context they are located. This feature of the Japanese culture is realized by Ando through the design of a particular relationship between interior and exterior, conceived thanks to the study and the control of interstitial entrance spaces.
The crossing of the threshold becomes a “rite of passage” between the “everybody” space and the “own” space, it’s the point of junction between public and private, therefore it needs a particular attention.
In the Row House in Sumiyoshi built in 1976, we can see exactly this direct expression of the architectonic conception of Ando, in one of the first buildings that made him world-wide known. Here we assist to the substitution of a traditional Japanese villa with a hermetic and independent concrete box. Only the main gateway is visible. This act of making the living an introvert factor is the emphasis of the private life, enclosed in a fence in which we can feel safe. The Row House is divided in 3 parts in longitudinal sequence: closed, open, closed, in which at the centre there is the courtyard that receives light from above, interrupted only by the small bridge that connects the two closed parts of the villa.
In an interview with Frédéric Migayrou, Ando claims that his hardest challenge is to be able to design spaces that permit to preserve the human being tranquillity, without becoming pure isolation. According to him the purpose of architecture is exactly that of designing places and buildings in which men can keep their independency and intimacy.
This unique aura that Ando is able to give in his works, is obtained thanks to two recurrent elements: the modulation of light and the strong presence of nature.
In the Church of the Light, 1987-89, 1997-99, light is everything. The space is simple, geometrical, solemn and cold, but the light filtered through the two crossed fissures in the main façade makes the experience complex and immersive, every time different and unexpected. In this regard, Ando in his “Vocabulaire de l’Architecte” (1986, in: Yann Nussuaume, « Tadao Ando – Pensées sur l’architecture et le paysage » Arléa, Paris, 1999, p. 83.), written shortly before the project of the church started, states his intention “to construct spaces that, at first glance, seem simple but that reveal their complexity once they are properly experienced”. Light is the most desired element because it’s symbol of life and community; light is the only element that allows us to really appreciate the spaces we experience.
For what concerns the other great theme of Ando’s architecture, nature is treated with a strong ritual respect, like in the Church of the Water, in which landscape and water are the background of the religious functions.
Always about nature, in 1987 the isle of Naoshima, almost uninhabited and left to the virgin wilderness, located in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan, was chosen as the site for a museum of contemporary art. From then, Ando designed 7 different interventions that have significantly remodelled the landscape. The respect of nature is significant: most of the interventions are hypogeous and completely hidden, not to obscure the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
The idea that Ando expresses is that to generate “a place where art, nature and human beings could come together and feed off each other”. The pure geometrical forms are excavated in the ground and they are part of an invisible architecture that wants to leave the place to what there was before, to the nature. Once more light is the real experiential protagonist of spaces.
Architecture becomes space of meditation and tranquillity, independently from its programmatic function, as much as the same Ando admits that every space he designs could be an independent private house.
The human act so is that to choose a site, to understand it, to study it and to start – or restart – the dialog with the natural or artificial context. What we need to keep in mind is that in material terms, what we are realizing will disappear one day, but the message and the idea we wanted to transmit with that will remain and will be seen with admiration or with disdain, depending on the result we were able to achieve.
The beginning of Ando’s career are obscure and fascinating; it gives his character a mysterious element that makes him even more unique. His strong ideas of returning to a geometric simplicity of architecture, in reference to the very beginning of geometrical concepts understood by the ancient Greeks, permit him to have a solid theoretical base, difficult to reach nowadays, and probably this is the key of his success. Ando has been able to find a magical aspect of architecture that everybody can understand and invested his time in researching the variations of it.
To conclude, in a recent interview with Frédéric Migayrou at Centre Pompidou Paris on April 8th, 2018, Tadao Ando left a message for young architects that everybody should remember:
“When I won the Alvar Aalto prize I was really surprised and I asked myself if they were wrong, because they gave a prize to a relatively young architect who was doing just modest houses. But then I realized that even if you work at small scale, if your message and your ideas are strong enough, someone will listen to you and will pay attention to what you are doing.
I would like that young architects continue to do architecture at best, because they have to know that someone around the world is looking at their work”
– Exhibition Centre Pompidou, Paris Tadao Ando – Le défi (The Challenge)
– Richard Pare, Tadao Ando: The colours of light, Phaidon, London, 2017, pp. 264
– Interview with Frédéric Migayrou, April 8th 2018
– Werner Blaser, Tadao Ando Sketches, Birkhauser Verlagm, Basel, 1990, pp. 176
– Matthew Hunter, Tadao Ando, Conversations with students, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2012, pp. 96
Tadao Ando. Photo © Kazumi Kurigami