Style & Design

Tadao Ando: When every single building is a passion project

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

A few simple lines on paper — that’s all it was. But there was something extremely alluring about it that intrigued Tadao Ando.

Then barely out of his teens, Ando might not have fully understood what he was looking at: a sketch of the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp in France, by Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect who more than anybody else shaped the aesthetics of modern architecture in the 20th century. Perhaps it did not feel like a life-changing event at the time, but with hindsight, it was a turning point. It marked the beginning of Ando’s passion for architecture. It changed his life forever.

As time went on, Ando became almost obsessed with Le Corbusier. He devoured a secondhand copy of his complete works. He pored over his writings. He read all he could find on the man’s life. Still not satisfied, in 1965, he embarked on a long journey, first traveling by boat, from Yokohama to the Soviet Far East, and thence across the continent on the Trans-Siberian railway, before finally reaching Paris, where, he hoped, he would meet the master in person.

He had no idea where to find him though, so he traipsed from place to place to little avail. Only after returning home several months later did he learn that Le Corbusier had in fact died a few weeks before his arrival in France.

This anecdote is revealing of Ando’s personality. It shows a passionate and curious man, a seeker given to deep introspection, but also a fighter doggedly pursuing his goals — Ando was a professional boxer before he turned to architecture. These traits allowed him develop a unique style, full of subdued vitality, and sustained him as he became one of the most successful architects of the past half century. Many of his most important constructions are in Japan and thus easy to visit — for example, Omotesando Hills in Tokyo or Benesse House in Naoshima — but much of Ando’s oeuvre can also now be appreciated in “Tadao Ando: Endeavors,” a beautiful and comprehensive show at the National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT).

Ando and his identical twin brother were born in Osaka in 1941. Partly due to the exigencies of war, Ando was sent to live with his maternal grandparents while his brother, a future urban planner and developer, remained at home. This was a significant decision. Ando’s grandmother had a powerful personality and she instilled in him a strong sense of independence. A well-known story is illustrative: In his early teens, Ando had to undergo surgery to remove his tonsils. His grandmother packed his bags, but she sent him off to the hospital alone.

The working-class district of Osaka in which Ando grew up was crammed with artisans, builders and carpenters, furniture makers and glassblowers — craftspeople who gave the neighborhood its daily rhythm. They worked with their hands and took enormous pride in what they did, an attitude that left a deep mark on the future architect. “Whether your field is art, business, photography or architecture,” he wrote in an email interview, “it is important to hold passion and pride in your work.”

In his early 20s, Ando began to travel widely, from the Japanese countryside to the Cote d’Ivoire and the shores of the Ganges. These journeys shaped him profoundly, and today he advises students who want to become independent architects to do the same. “Travelling forces you to think on your own,” he once wrote. He also used his time on the road to draw and, despite a complete lack of training, these early sketches, some of which can be seen at the NACT, display an arresting talent. In a recent interview Yayoi Motonashi, the curator of the exhibition, says, “He draws better than an artist.”

Talent or not, to an outside observer, even a sympathetic one, the odds of Ando succeeding as an architect might have appeared somewhat remote. In a country that highly values formal training and credentials, Ando had none. Like his model, Le Corbusier, he is entirely self-trained. What is more, by 1969, when Ando established his practice, years of rapid economic growth had turned Japanese cities into a chaotic mess, wrapped into confusing, albeit often ignored, zoning laws and regulations. Then came the oil shock of 1973 and the economic crisis. Funds disappeared, construction halted. Building projects were few and far between.

Thus, Ando initially had to sustain himself with small jobs as a furniture or graphic designer. In time, however, commissions started coming in, mostly for private dwellings in the Kansai area — Row House in Sumiyoshi (1976) is a good example. These were very early days, but already, the core elements of his architecture were evident: large slabs of silky concrete, stunning and clever use of natural light, perfect harmony with the building’s natural surroundings. “Everything was already there,” says Motohashi.

It did not take long for Ando to get noticed. In 1978, less than a decade after establishing his studio, his work was featured in a traveling exhibition of Japanese architecture. The following year, his first one-man show was held in Budapest. Numerous awards followed in the 1980s, culminating in 1995 with the Pritzker, which is often described as the Nobel Prize of architecture. On the surface, this was remarkable. It certainly seemed fast and Ando himself would say as much.

“However, it is not so unusual for the stars to be recognized fairly young,” says Jonathan Reynolds, a professor of art history and a specialist of Japanese architecture at Barnard College and Columbia University. “The exceptional manner in which Ando approached modernist aesthetics and materials, and the way in which he linked these with a perceived Japanese tradition was very appealing to many.” Consciously or not, the architect had tapped a powerful vein.

Over the years, Ando’s architecture has remained surprisingly consistent. For instance, there is a clear and direct connection between Fukutake Hall (2005-08), at the University of Tokyo, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (1997-2002) in Texas and Osaka’s Church of the Light (1989). The latter is a particularly successful structure that shows Ando at his best: On a tiny plot of land, working within tight budgetary constraints, he built a spare, almost austere house of worship that nevertheless sits perfectly with its surroundings.

The inside is bare. There are no distracting paintings, no overtly expressive sculptures. Only light, pure and solemn. The effect is spellbinding. And utterly unforgettable.

“Tadao Ando: Endeavors” at the National Art Center, Tokyo runs until Dec. 18; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue.