One of the first houses built by Japan’s most famous architect, Tadao Ando, is centered around an open atrium. That sounds nice until you realize that the atrium forms the only “corridor” between each of the rooms. Fancy a hot cup of tea before bed on a rainy winter’s night? You’ll need an umbrella and an overcoat to get to the kitchen.

Paradoxically enough, it was this Spartan abode, built in 1976 in Osaka, that launched a career that now includes hundreds of award-winning buildings the world over — and another 30 are currently under construction. At the time, future clients admired the house for the clarity of its at-one-with-nature vision. One of them, Keizo Saji, who was then the president of beverage behemoth Suntory, was so impressed that he later asked the architect to design a museum.

In 1994, the resulting Suntory Museum, whose inverted, and truncated-cone structure sits on the Osaka harbor front, became the first of many major art museums Ando has completed. Recently, too, his Benesse House Museum on Naoshima Island in the Seto Inland Sea was named by Conde Naste Traveler magazine among the new “seven wonders” of the world. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, in Texas, and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri, are just some of the other art museums completed by the 67-year-old architect, who proudly explains that he received no formal education in architecture, but taught himself through copious reading and travel.

The integration of nature into the built environment is a theme that has remained consistent throughout Ando’s career. That fact will no doubt surprise those who know his work only by its most famous trait: concrete. Almost all of the architect’s buildings use the material — generally in stark, low-rise and long walls that initially confront, but ultimately seduce visitors with their sheer precision and geometrical beauty. On presenting him with the Pritzker Prize — architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel — in 1995, the jury described Ando’s devotion to the material, saying he uses it as though it was “the tectonic demiurge of our time.”

But even concrete can be harnessed to bring humans closer to nature. That first drafty house in Osaka is one example; so too is Ando’s new subway station for the Toyoko Line in Tokyo’s central Shibuya district. Giant void spaces — offering views from the subterranean ticket concourse down onto the train tracks — also allow fresh air to be pulled 30 meters below ground by the force of the moving trains.

Ando says the degradation of the natural environment through the overuse of natural resources is one of the greatest challenges facing “inhabitants of this planet.” The Shibuya station project is one of the “completely new visions” that he says will be essential to solving the problem by minimizing energy-use for the purpose of ventilation.

Another is his plan to turn a large swath of Tokyo into a car-free zone and create linked parklands to turn the metropolis into the “garden city” he says it was during the Edo Period (1603-1867). And, as Director of Grand Design for the 2016 Olympics bid, he hopes to accomplish both of those goals in time for what he is confident will be the first truly open, truly environmentally conscious Olympics — held in Tokyo.

The Japan Times caught up with the indefatigable Osaka native at Gallery Ma, in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, where he is currently the subject of a large retrospective, and where that famed first house is reproduced in full scale — with open atrium and all.

Your Row House in Sumiyoshi, Osaka, from 1976, has an open central atrium, so if you want to go from the bedroom to the kitchen, and it’s raining, you may get wet. Why did you design it like that, and why do you think it was praised for the clarity of its vision?

The site of the Row House is 3 meters wide by about 15 meters deep, and in the middle is an open garden. Because there is an open garden, nature is allowed into the building — the sunlight, the rain, the wind. So the vision incorporated into that work is that the inhabitants live in tandem with nature. That means it’s a house you have to adapt to. When it’s cold you put an extra shirt on — you live with nature. In some ways it’s a contemporary reinterpretation of traditional Japanese architecture.

The then head of Suntory, Keizo Saji, had approached me saying that he wanted to make a museum. He came and saw the house. The vision that he saw in that house was that, although the scale was small — it’s a very small house — it was very clear what I wanted to achieve. He said that with a lot of contemporary architecture it was difficult to understand what the architect was trying to achieve.

What else did he like about the house?

He liked it that you could look at the sky; from that small garden you can see your own piece of sky. He said it was interesting that it was as if the house itself was “in dialogue with the planet.”

The Shibuya station I made is also in dialogue with nature. Every major city in the world has a subway about 30 meters below ground. In Shibuya, it has been designed so that the wind created by the trains actually pulls fresh air into the station from outside. That means you can reduce energy use in ventilation and heating. Minimizing energy use is of course a worldwide trend at the moment, but for me this idea started back with the Row House in Osaka — with bringing nature into the internal environment.

So, in addition to cohabitation with nature, the minimization of energy use is another element on which your architectural visions are founded. What other elements are there?

If you look at traditional architecture in Japan, you can see that it was centered on a system of circulation — which involved nature. Then, after World War II, Japan adopted the so-called American style of life — based on the consumption of oil. I think it’s time we started thinking about a Japanese style of urban development. That’s one major factor in my work.

I have been doing a lot of work like this. For example, the 21_21 Design Sight in Roppongi (a design museum). It’s a part of the giant Midtown complex, but it is built within a park. It’s small, but it’s situated within a natural setting. The Omotesando Hills building (a shopping center in the swanky Tokyo district of Omotesando that replaced the popular and historically significant Dojunkai apartment building) is not large either, but I designed it so that it would preserve the original scenery — it is the same height and a similar shape to the original building. That’s another element that is Japanese. So there are a number of works I have done now that realize this idea.

Can you tell me a little more how those buildings are “Japanese”?

Well, I guess it’s less “Japanese” than it is at-one with nature. In Western architecture, the idea has been to have thick walls that protect the inhabitants from nature. But with Japanese wooden architecture in particular, it’s not possible to say where nature ends and the human area begins. They are one.

You have said that “courage” is the most important attribute for an architect to have. What kind of courage does an architect need?

It’s the same with all the arts, such as literature or visual art — if you are going to express yourself you need courage. You have to stick your neck out. Sticking your neck out of course entails a danger. Like with music — composers such as Toru Takemitsu are always taking risks.

The most important thing is that architects realize that they must break new ground. Architects must be aware of that — they must be aware their architecture should actually influence people. Like when I made the Row House, I was deliberately confronting what had become the conventional thinking about residential architecture in Japan — that it must simply be comfortable, rational and fun to live in. I am telling people that a residence is something they must think about themselves. Unless they think about it themselves, they won’t achieve a way of life that is suited to them. I proposed that they live in harmony with nature.

Some people responded favorably; others less so. If you do something new, those opposed tend to make up the majority.

The architect must also bring together a large team of professionals — is that another key skill?

Yes — the architect is not going to dig the hole or put up the concrete him or herself. They have to bring the team together. And that’s another reason why their vision is important. People come together where there is a vision.

But in addition, you need your team members to have the skills to make your visions real. We are in a good position in Japan because the standard of architectural technology is very high here. The technology is able to make real the vision that we have.

You’ve worked a lot overseas. How does the teamwork differ there?

The level of technical proficiency — not just with architecture, but with everything, from cars to machines — is very high in Japan. This has been true in history too, back to the Edo Period, even. The standards that the general public in Japan demand are very high. It is these demands that raised the standards of Japanese manufacturers.

Architecture is the same: “Build it quicker!” If it takes too long to build something, the public complains. But in America and other places, the builders tend to fall behind schedule. It’s unusual to find a country like Japan, where everything gets done on schedule. I also work in Italy and America — and they both fall behind schedule. But in Italy they take greater pride in high-quality architecture, and sometimes it just takes them a bit longer. In America, the seat of their pride is money: “Look at how much money we can make!” However, I am not in the business of making something that makes money, so there is quite a gap in our thinking when we build something in the United States.

The Japanese have pride in both quality and money — the balance is good. I think this way of thinking will be exported more in the future.

It hasn’t been yet, though, has it?

The Japanese are bad at conveying their ideas overseas. This is not a problem of language — as we are often told. It’s deeper than that: It’s a problem at the core of the Japanese psyche.

These days the world is becoming more and more linked due to globalization, but Japan is being left behind. Japan seems to think it will be all right on its own. But the reality nowadays is that when the American economy crashes, the rest of the world crashes too. The world really is one now. If nonrenewable fuels are used up it means they’re used up for the entire world — it’s not just Japan’s problem. This means that in future we have to think of ourselves as inhabitants of Planet Earth — not as citizens of a country. A larger vision is required. It’s not enough to make one building that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide; a complete change of thinking is required, and it will come.

You said that the general public in Japan are more demanding than people overseas. Does that mean it is possible to make more experimental architecture overseas?

You can make more adventurous architecture in Japan. The degree of freedom is higher here. It is easier to get permission to build things. In towns in Europe, for example, they won’t let you make things that go against the grain — because of laws preserving historical buildings and views. So in that way, the freedom is greater in Japan.

However, Japanese are like children; they are too free. You need a starting point — an objective starting point for your freedom. Japanese children have freedom without a foundation, freedom without responsibility. You need freedom with responsibility.

What kind of freedom is that?

For freedom with a sense of responsibility, you have to have one eye on the whole as you exercise your freedom. It’s not good enough to just have freedom. People should have freedom to think freely, not the freedom to do anything they like. Architecture is the same. It needs to be an architecture that is free, but that is built on the architectural traditions and history — both Japanese and international.

A lot of the jobs you do overseas are renovations, such as the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana museum projects on the Grand Canal in Venice. However, the work you do in Japan is mostly new. I guess that is a result of Japan’s scrap-and-build approach. Why is there this difference between Japan and the West?

I think it is because after the war Japan wanted to become more American. There was a belief that you just needed to build new things. In Japan, buildings became kinds of commercial merchandise, like other products.

It was because of this that the current rush of condominium development began — build and sell, build and sell, like products.

Of course, architecture will always be partly a product, but it must also be an urban resource. The more you build and sell, then the rate of consumption increases — profit increases — but then you run out of natural resources and you damage the environment.

What are you going to do? It is the government that must think of answers. In Europe, their answer has been to construct their society slowly — not resorting to a system of mass production and mass consumption. Of course, the price they paid was that they haven’t developed economically as fast as the United States. Which approach is better? We need to think about this.

Do you think Japan needs stricter laws to preserve historical buildings?

It depends on the building, of course, but yes, I think it does. It is easier to judge the value of very old buildings. Thirty or 40 years ago, all buildings were made on principles of profitability only, so there are many that are not worth preserving. You need to establish clear criteria to determine historical worth.

Why do you think a European organization would entrust the renovation of an old building in Venice to an architect from Japan, where essentially there is no tradition of renovating buildings?

I’m doing a museum and head office for Giorgio Armani in Milan at the moment. I did a theater for him in 2001. This work also began from the renovation of a 70-year-old factory. He likes to make new things out of old things. He likes customers mixing old clothes with his fashion, too, so his way of thinking is consistent. But, I agree, they needed courage to ask a Japanese to do that work for them. You know, there are a lot of architects in Italy! But, I guess there are some people who think the Japanese sensibility is interesting.

On the other hand, you also work in places like Abu Dhabi, where you are working from a completely blank slate. Is your approach to these kinds of jobs different?

Essentially it is the same. For example, the work I am doing in Abu Dhabi is for a maritime museum. When you approach the building from the land, then it forms a gate to the sea. When you approach it from the sea, it becomes a gate to the land. At the top is an exhibition space, and there is another underwater too. It’s a museum, so it has to be conscious of local history.

Brand-new buildings can be as conscious of history as renovation projects. On the other hand, the Dogana di Mare renovation in Venice, where we are turning the old Customs House into a contemporary-art museum (to be called the Punta della Dogana), is directed ostensibly at the future — because it is a museum of contemporary art. But of course, it must be conscious of the past, too — because you’re making something inside a 500-year-old structure.

In the end, all of my work starts from “zero” — it’s just the position of the zero is different. With the renovation work, I consider the existing building to be part of the site, part of the environment in which I must build the new building. All the work builds on the past to convey a message directed at the future. That’s what Keizo Saji saw in the Row House in Osaka. He detected hope and a dream for the future.

You just mentioned that the Japanese sensibility is appreciated overseas. What is this Japanese sensibility? I know when you received the Pritzker Prize the jury mentioned in their announcement that your work continued the already significant contribution of Japanese architects to international Modernist architecture.

I think Japan’s contribution has been the idea that architecture is not a “thing” — it’s not a solid object. It’s like Kakuzo Okakura wrote in his “Book of Tea” in 1906: Architecture is never a shape, it is the space enclosed by the shape, by the walls and ceiling. I think he is right. This sort of thinking is not exclusive to Japan — similar things can be found in the West too, but I think with the use of lightweight walls, coming from shoji and fusuma (types of sliding screens), Japan pioneered that idea.

You are currently in charge of the Grand Plan for the Tokyo Olympic bid for 2016. Can you tell me what your actual role is?

I am the general director of all the facilities. But there is also a plan called “Tokyo 10 Years From Now,” which I am working on for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. I want to re-establish Tokyo as a garden city. A long time ago it was a city of daimyo (feudal lord) residences — and some of them have survived, such as Korakuen and Tokyo University. I want to bring the grounds of Meiji Shrine and other park areas together to make a green Tokyo. My “Umi no Mori” (“Forest in the Sea”) plan is a part of that. The forest is being built on garbage — it’s 100 hectares, about the same area as an 18-hole golf course — of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. By making the garbage mountain into a forest, I want to turn it into a symbol for global environmental awareness.

We have to make a world that doesn’t produce garbage. We have to stop wasting resources. So, by making this forest in the middle of this 30-million-person metropolis, we are hoping to become a model city for the world.

While we’re at it, people in Tokyo are conscious of environmental issues, so why not make the area inside the circular Yamanote Line a car-free zone? It could be a pedestrian paradise, though service vehicles and taxis would be allowed. Tokyo could be turned into one of those cities built on an ideal — based on the same principles of natural circulation as pre-modern Tokyo. And then, if we could hold the Olympics in that city, it would great.

For the Olympics, we are thinking of preserving the main buildings from the 1964 Olympics — the National Gymnasium by architect Kenzo Tange, and so on — and reinforcing them so they can be used again. You know, I’m an architect, so everyone thinks I am going to design the main stadium and all the new buildings, but no: I want all the architecture to be decided by open competitions. Renovation and reconstruction work would also be decided by competition. I want to bring expertise from around the world to Tokyo. Nowadays, in terms of the economy, Japan is too isolated. I want the Olympics bid to be more open to the outside world.

It sounds like there are some ideas in there worth exploring with or without the Olympics.

Yes, the “Tokyo 10 Years From Now” plan is, in fact, unrelated to the Olympics. We need to make it happen either way. The population in India and China is going to grow even more, and they’re all going to want to drive cars. It’s going to be a terrible situation for the environment. Tokyo can become a model for the carless city.

It seems your vision for the future of Tokyo is as clear now as that original vision you had for the Row House in Osaka more than 30 years ago. Are you confident it will inspire as many other people in the future?

After the war, both Tokyo and Osaka developed at an amazing pace, but mistakes were made; each should have been developed with a grand plan in mind, rather than in a piecemeal fashion.

Tokyo is big problem. You know, at the moment, Tokyo is not the focus of the world’s attention. With other cities in Asia developing so rapidly, Tokyo is a forgotten city. But the problems facing us with environmental degradation offer a chance to rethink, to readdress planning issues in Tokyo. By doing so, we can make Tokyo into a model for the world. It can become a greener city, a more open city, and, if it is selected to host the 2016 Olympics, that movement will get a major boost.

The International Olympic Committee will announce the host of the 2016 Olympic Games on Oct. 2, 2009. “Challenges — Faithful to the Basis,” a retrospective on the work of Tadao Ando, continues at Gallery Ma in Tokyo’s Roppongi district until Dec. 20. Admission is free. For details, visit www.toto.co.jp/gallerma/

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