The young boxer turned self-trained architect mastered a signature style of concrete and shadow in Japan before exploding onto the global scene
In his 1977 essay In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki wrote that ‘we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates’. Tanizaki’s words closely resonate with the work of Tadao Ando, vividly expressed in the dramatic diagonal shadows and light of his formational Koshino House (1981), cast across the double-height exposed concrete living room wall and contrasting with the dynamic shadows on the curved wall of the extension added by the architect in 1984. Ando’s sketches and rendered sections of the house draw on the light interacting with concrete walls: ‘The traces of the concrete formwork, the imprint of the separators, the sharp corners and homogeneous surfaces all contain powerful hidden expression behind the calm material’, he wrote in 1989. He continued: ‘I chose this route rather than the vivid, plastic use of space Le Corbusier favoured in his later work, perhaps from my having been raised in a culture of paper and wood’.
Ando thereby references Tanizaki’s description of a traditional world in tension with contemporary culture in reference to his own architectural design. As he proclaimed, ‘I believe that the act of living is a constant struggle between the residents and the house, and the same goes for the process of creating by the architect’. Ando’s primary quest is to consider those ‘intimate relations between material and form, and between volume and human life’.
Source: Gonzalo P Martos
Source: Hiromitsu Morimoto
The origins of Ando’s fight as an architect can be found in his bouts with boxing as a youth. First entering the local boxing circuit while still in high school, he was inspired to end his professional boxing career and pursue architecture after seeing the Imperial Hotel (1923) in Tokyo by Frank Lloyd Wright. Nonetheless, such physical training was formative for Ando as he embarked on his lifelong fight to create powerful architectural form, continuing to train in shadowboxing: attacking both the unseen and seen forces in the creative tension inherent in his design process.
Following years of self-study in architecture through courses in drawing and extensive travel around the world between 1962 and 1969, learning about great architecture through direct experience and sketching in his twenties, Ando established his independent practice through the design of small houses. The Row House at Sumiyoshi (1976) became his personal architectural manifesto in its minimalist exposed concrete form, directly contrasting with the adjacent timber-frame traditional nagaya townhouses. Its iconic concrete facade with a singular central opening for the door stood in direct opposition to the porous wood and paper screens of its neighbours, while maintaining the same overall width, height and depth.
Source: Tadao Ando Architect & Associates
Here the residents’ daily struggle could be seen in the need to constantly pass through the central court from the bedroom to the bathroom, exposed to both rain and light. For Ando, such challenges were inherent in traditional dwelling and forced residents to be in direct contact with natural forces. Architecture, according to Ando, ‘reduces nature to its original elements – light, wind, and air, and, conversely, sublimates it as an abstraction through a dynamic resonance with geometry’. Ando’s direct attitude to embracing nature subsequently inspired his designs of sacred space. For the architect, the metaphysical experience of nature is fundamentally linked to Shinto’s animistic beliefs in the forces of nature, kami, as embodied in the Ise Shrine and principles of Zen Buddhism as manifest in the rock garden of Ryoanji.
Such spiritual beliefs resonate with his design of Church on the Water in Tomamu, Hokkaido (1988), focusing on a single exterior cross exposed to natural forces. In counterpoint, at his Church of the Light in Ibaraki (1989), Ando dematerialised the physical cross, instead creating a cross-shaped opening in the concrete wall where light itself becomes the sacred presence. For Ando, light is the origin of all being. As he has himself explained, ‘Things are articulated along borders of light and darkness, and obtain their individual form, discovering interrelationships, and become infinitely linked’. Light renders the relationships that constitute the world, by no means immobile. ‘Light is, rather, tremulous motion’, he continues. ‘Out of its ceaseless transformation, light continually reinvents the world.’
Source: Mitsuo Matsuoka
Ando expressed his visionary quest to transform the world through his unrealised macrocosmic Nakanoshima Project II (1988) planned for the civic centre of Osaka on a long, narrow island. While his first design – Nakanoshima Project I (1980) – proposed to preserve part of the 1921 Osaka City Hall within a concrete lattice structure, this second phase boldly extended the design to become an urban park for the 21st century. Alongside an egg-shaped theatre space inserted in the Osaka City Central Public Hall from 1918, the design involved massive spherical and cubic spaces underground for music and art, and a series of piazzas encompassing water, greenery and underground spaces to reach the very tip of the island and ultimately enrich urban life both culturally and environmentally. While these oversized visionary drawings would not be built as originally planned, they embody the breadth of his architectural and urban vision which he would eventually realise in unexpected ways through his constant and lifelong architectural fight.
Just as his boxing hero, Fighting Harada, rose from humble beginnings to become a world boxing champion, Ando emerged from the shadows of his early years to the global spotlight. Following his inclusion as a member of the New Wave of Japanese Architects in 1978 at the Institute for Architecture and Urbanism, Ando rose to prominence in the mid-1980s as a ‘critical regionalist’, in the words of Kenneth Frampton. In 1987, the self-trained architect from Osaka would be invited to teach at the Ivy League Universities in the United States: Yale in 1987, Columbia in 1988 and Harvard in 1990.
Source: Tadao Ando Architect & Associates
In 1991, the Museum of Modern Art featured Ando in a solo exhibition, and he went on to win the 1995 Pritzker Architecture Prize. In 1997, he was then named Professor at Tokyo University, especially remarkable as he was neither a graduate of Tokyo University, nor indeed any architecture programme, in a meteoric rise reminiscent of the legendary ascent of the daimyo (feudal lord) Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who emerged without any traceable samurai lineage.
Along with such world acclaim would come Ando’s task both to remain at the architectural vanguard and to surpass his achievements. He continued to take inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright, now in terms of his longevity as a creative architect. Having mastered the craft of concrete through the first decades of his career, Ando embraced the challenge to maintain the same level of perfection with his newfound global prominence in the 1990s. While he first received the commission to design the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St Louis, Missouri in 1991, it was to become a 10-year ordeal to realise – finally completing in 2001 – with both a site change and battles with artists including Richard Serra, in a dialogue between pure platonic space and dynamic sculptural form. While the foundation was under construction, Ando designed and built the Eychaner Lee House, tackling the problem of designing for the cold winters of Chicago in a completely different culture of building construction and legal regulations. The house was completed in 1997, joined most recently by his design of the adjacent Wrightwood 659 Gallery (2019).
Source: Chris Gascoigne / VIEW
Source: Liao Yusheng
Continuing to his next round of battles, Ando competed for the commission of the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum (2002) with architects including Arata Isozaki, Richard Gluckman and Ricardo Legorreta. Here, the main struggle was to build adjacent to Louis Kahn’s masterpiece, whereby the new museum should ‘neither mimic the Kimball nor dispute its primacy’. While internal concrete volumes would recall his Row House at Sumiyoshi, the glazed volumes facing the lagoon have their own deferential presence with neither Ando nor Kahn in each other’s shadow.
Ando’s early Koshino House, built for fashion designer Hiroko Koshino, was followed by close associations with designers around the world including Issey Miyake, Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld, who would in turn introduce him to fashion magnate François Pinault in 1996. This encounter would eventually lead to his winning the 2001 competition to design the François Pinault Foundation for Contemporary Art on the site of a disused Renault factory on the island of Seguin, three miles along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. The project presented him with the opportunity to realise his vision for the Nakanoshima Project II in the heart of Paris, but the scheme was never built. Pinault instead moved his collection to Venice, where Ando realised contemporary art spaces in renovations of the Palazzo Grassi (2006), followed by the Punta della Dogana Contemporary Art Center (2009), a transformation of the former customs house at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Through dogged persistence, Ando realised his vision to build an egg-shaped dome over the underground concourse in Shibuya station in Tokyo in 2006.
Source: Jeff Goldberg / ESTO
Within the last decade, at the peak of his profession, Ando faced a battle against cancer, which necessitated the removal of his gallbladder and duodenum, followed by his pancreas and spleen. While his health would limit his international travel, his perseverance did not wane and he surpassed expectations to maintain his strength and recover. In 2016, Ando embarked on a project to renovate the Bourse de Commerce into another art museum for Pinault. The design features a 10 metre-high, 30 metre-wide concrete cylinder within the central rotunda of the historic commodities exchange building, situated between the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre in the heart of Paris. With its mid-2020 projected completion, he will in essence realise the vision he had for Nakanoshima, to create a truly civic cultural space in one of the most prominent locations in the world.
Although not his original plan, Ando will eventually build on Nakanoshima, leading the campaign to plant 3,000 cherry trees along its promenade, and will open his Nakanoshima Children’s Book Forest library this year, to inspire children to appreciate the importance of books and lead them along their own path from darkness to light. As Ando himself has professed, ‘There is no way of knowing what the future holds in both life and with architecture. So long as you do not stop thinking ahead or thinking forward, architecture will never end. It is always in process.’
This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today