A re-imagining of Osaka’s riverfront

Architect Tadao Ando displays his plans to revitalize Osaka, with Venetian inspirations


“Tadao Ando Exhibition 2009: The City of Water/Osaka vs. Venice” seems like a fixed fight. Many would even balk at the idea of the match-up.

Venice is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, while Osaka, not spared U.S. bombing raids in World War II as Kyoto was, became divided by expressways and ramshackle urban development as the city spurred Japan’s rapid postwar economic development. And yet, architect Tadao Ando (b. 1941) is fiercely proud of his native Osaka.

But Osaka vs. Venice is not really a challenge posed in the present. It is more about how Ando is proposing a new face for Osaka in 10 years, such that it could size up favorably to the Italian city. It is also about Ando’s renovation of a 17th-century Venetian customs house, the Punta della Dogana, that houses the contemporary art collection of French billionaire Francois Pinault, and opened to the public on June 6 this year during the first week of the Venice Biennale.

Ando has shown a strong connection to water in the themes of his architecture. In the exhibition, he uses it variously as a backdrop or as a reflective surface to draw the sky down into dialogue with the gray and tactile reinforced concrete that is his trademark material.

Ando’s present aims for Osaka continue his long-held belief that beyond the construction of individual buildings there must be some commitment by the architect to enrich urban life, providing a public function not affordable to the individual. To that end, Ando and a team of students have constructed a massive model of Nakanoshima, Osaka’s urban center, proffering a decidedly rosy future for the riverside development as a lifeline running through the city.

This is not mere idealism. Since 2004, Ando has collected around 52,000 donations at ¥10,000 a pop, that he has used to plant 2,300 cherry blossom (sakura) trees along the Nakanoshima riverside. He hopes to have completed 3,000 plantings by 2010, creating the longest “sakura line” in the world.

Where trees cannot be planted due to the presence of buildings, Ando advocates greening the facades facing the river with ivy. The project is dependent upon the cooperation of property owners and is more than likely to meet with resistance, but it got a start this year with a building on the Tosabori riverbank. Beyond this, Ando proposes nothing short of the creation of a water-themed landscape that brings nature back into tangible connection with daily urban life, including fountains, river terraces, underground developments and a swimming pool sited atop of the river.

Ando has said what he most admired about the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was his perseverance. This is now displayed by Ando in relation to his home city, as is clear in the models of still unbuilt projects that he presents as a necessary stimulus to dialogue.

In his 1969 project called the “JR Osaka Station area reconstruction,” Ando proposed that the buildings in front of the station be roofed in greenery, creating a “garden in the air.” More boldly, he proposed that these new spaces could be connected by escalators creating an undulating landscape in midair and a space for public access freed from ground-level traffic and pedestrian crossings. Ando wanted, too, to reclaim the sky, as it is frequently blocked by dense thickets of office high-rises.

But Ando’s conception of nature is not of an untouched state but of a “man-made nature”: an abstraction, not a reduction, that shifts and recasts perceptions of man’s relation to nature and the architectures of different times, establishing dialogues between the old and new; such as Ando’s most recent project, Venice’s Punta della Dogana.

Originally a customs house that juts out at the tip of the island of Dorsoduro the renovated building now hosts the most contemporary of art. From the outside little appears to have changed, but moving inside there are stark contrasts of ancient and recently completed brickwork in relation to abutting sheets of gray reinforced concrete and glass. Turning skyward, the original wooden beam structure of the roof has been retained and highlighted by skylights.

The overall result is both a preservation and a revitalization that brings the building materials and techniques of different centuries into rapprochement, but which, in Ando’s own architectural conception, does not end in “dismembering the collective memory.”

“Tadao Ando Exhibition 2009: The City of Water/Osaka vs. Venice” is at the Suntory Museum Tempozan till July 12; admission ¥900; open 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.suntory.com/ culture-sports/smt/gallery/ index.html