Tadao Ando - Essay

by Carolyn Armenta Davis

When Jay Pritzker, the president of the Hyatt Foundation, awarded the coveted 1995 Pritzker Prize medallion and grant to Japanese architect Tadao Ando, he announced that Ando had donated his $100,000 prize to orphans of the deadly January 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.

In fact, his gift of prize money was the architect's second gift to the people of the Kobe earthquake fault zone. The first was Ando's meticulous designs of some 35 undamaged buildings that survived the devastating quake . . . and his commitment to the marriage of aesthetics and craftsmanship for the people who "trusted his ability to make these buildings."

The prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is considered the "Nobel Prize of architecture," is bestowed annually to a living architect whose built work combines talent, vision and commitment, and who has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity through the art of architecture.

The Most Basic of Elements

This year in honoring the 'oeuvre' of Tadao Ando, the citation of the Pritzker International jury stated that, "Working with smooth-as-silk concrete, Ando creates spaces using walls which he defines as the most basic elements of architecture, but also the most enriching. In spite of his consistent use of materials and the elements of pillar, wall and vault, his different combinations of these elements always prove exciting and dynamic. His design concepts and materials have linked international Modernism to the Japanese tradition of aesthetics."

Nearly all of Ando's buildings are constructed of concrete, steel and glass with reoccuring themes of light, shadows, views, geometric forms and mystical spaces often using underground enclosures. He has a special talent for creating structures that are unique blends of Japanese reserve with Western contemporary boldness and modernity that maintain homage to the beauty of the natural environment. Ando's best known works that show his blending of East and West are the Church on the Water in Hokkaido, Japan; the Church of Light in a suburb of Osaka, Japan; and the Water Temple in Hyago, Japan.

Ando's Church on the Water for Christian worshipers is a reinforced concrete structure that has a chapel with a glass wall facing an enormous cross rising from a man-made lake with forest and mountains in the background. The crucifix in flowing water, according to Ando is, "to express the idea of God as existing in one's heart and mind. I also wanted to create a space where one can sit and meditate." Vistas of the cross on water in all seasons are quite extraordinary.

His Church of Light, a small Christian chapel, is an oblong concrete box. The interior of the chapel slopes to the altar. On the wall behind the altar, the intersecting vertical and horizontal slits of clear glass form a cross in the smooth gray concrete wall. The slits allow the sunlight to create a bright cross in the dark sanctuary. From ordinary, monochromatic concrete, clear glass and his mastery of space proportions, geometry and controlled light, this chapel is at once simple, severe, serene and elegant. It is a superb example of Ando's architecture.

The Water Temple, a Buddhist shrine on a hill on the island of Awaji, has its ceremony spaces underground beneath a large circular pond filled with living lotus flowers. The entrance to the temple is through a stairway in the center of the pond, which is the roof of the ceremonial rooms below. The main circular temple is gridded with vermillion stained pillars and grated screens.

Ando also has created mystical underground spaces in a number of his museums and houses such as the Koshino House, which is half underground. The house is comprised of two parallel concrete rectangles connected by a corridor that flanks a courtyard and has an atelier which is completely subterranean. Light comes into the house from slits in the ceilings, walls and large windows in the living room that face the outdoor court.

Rokko Housing, an award-winning apartment complex with a spectacular view of Osaka Bay, is built into the Kobe mountain. Ando considers Rokko the best expression of his ideas for interweaving grids, geometric forms, solid space, empty space, controlled light, darkness and harmony with the natural environment. This apartment complex, built in two stages 10 years apart, is terraced into the forest and hillside.

In addition to religious structures and dramatic housing, Ando has applied his skills to numerous museums in Japan such as the Children's Museum, Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum, Suntory Museum, Museum of Literature and the Forest of Tomba Museum in Kumamoto, which is designed as a raised platform from which to view the tombs. Half of the building is below ground.

Ando's commercial projects include the Okinawa, the Japanese department store Festival and the Time's shopping mall in Kyoto, which sits on the Takase River with the entrance to the shops directed past the river by the use of a water level plaza and bridge deck above the plaza.

The majority of Ando's completed works are in his native Japan. Nearly all are made of concrete. One notable exception, created as a tribute to the Japanese aesthetic of unadorned beauty and simple wood structures, was the enormous, ark-form, four-story wooden structure Ando designed for the Japan Pavilion at Expo '92 in Seville, Spain. The ark was one of the world's largest wood structures when it was dismantled after the expo.

Beyond Japan

Tadao Ando has only a few completed projects outside of Japan. His first commission in the United States was the 16,500-square-foot interior of the Gallery for Japanese Screens in the Art Institute of Chicago. In Germany he designed the Vitra Seminar House in Well-am-Rhein for the furniture manufacturer. International design projects currently under construction include the Fabrica-the Benetton Art School for applied arts in Treviso, Italy, and the UNESCO Meditation Space to commemorate its 50th anniversary in Paris, France.

The 1995 Pritzker Architecture Prize acknowledges the talents of an unusual architect and an unusual Japanese man who is a truly original artist. Ando never attended college nor received any formal education in architecture. He is self-taught with innate sensibilities for space, form, light, and materials.

As a youth he studied woodworking with a local carpenter and apprenticed with several designers and city planners. Around age 18, he started visiting Japanese temples, shrines, tea houses and other buildings including Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel. Ando also studied architecture by going to see buildings, reading books and analyzing and tracing drawings. In his 20s, he made study trips to Europe and the United States to analyze the great buildings of western civilization. Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn were the architects who influenced Ando the most.

Tadao Ando's architecture has earned him acclaim in Japan with some eight awards plus the international honors of the Danish Carlsburg Prize, Alvar Aalto Medal, the French Gold Medal of Architecture, as well as honorary fellowships of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

The 1995 Pritzker laureate Tadao Ando defines architecture as "Chohatsu suru hako" or "the box that provokes." As he explains, "I do not believe architecture should speak too much. It should remain silent and let nature in the guise of sunlight and wind speak." Ando architecture speaks volumes.

Carolyn Armenta Davis of Chicago, IL, is an award-winning writer, producer and founder of The Design Diaspora.

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