The Eternal Tadao Ando

The legendary Japanese architect reflects on his career.

Tadao Ando at his firm’s office in Osaka, Japan.

“Youth” is not typically the first word that comes to mind when discussing the buildings of Tadao Ando. Yet that is how the 73-year-old Japanese architect sees his work and the field in general: as an opportunity to positively impact and shape the way a child experiences the world. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Ando views his surroundings in a childlike way, with endless curiosity and constant questioning. While his buildings are highly technical, with strong and resolute forms, they also affect visitors and inhabitants in deeply phenomenological ways. His structures are subtle and serene, yet those who visit them never, ever, forget them. There’s an exacting, hard-won aura to Ando’s work. A former professional boxer, Ando brings a fighting nature to his projects, and it shows. His designs are both rigorously intellectual and emotional, each bearing a level of clarity and intricacy that could only have been achieved by him.

Growing up in row housing in a working-class neighborhood in Osaka, Ando was unable to afford a formal architecture education. Instead, he taught himself—an incredibly rare feat in the field. He visited buildings by Japanese architects, studying them closely, and absorbed books on the work of Western modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. He traveled to sites worldwide, from the Parthenon to the Pantheon. Then, in 1973, starting with a house in Osaka, he began to build. Ando has since completed more than 200 projects around the world, including a house on Vitra’s campus (1993); the Fabrica research center in Treviso, Italy (2000); the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis (completed in 2001 and currently being expanded); and a renovation of the Punta della Dogana in Venice (2009). His firm’s latest project to open is the expansion of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and its first in New York City—a seven-unit residential building in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood—is just starting construction. At the Clark last summer, Surface spoke with Ando through a translator about his life and work, after which he led us on a tour of the new building, pointing about with the enthusiasm of someone six or seven decades his junior.

Before becoming an architect, you were a boxer. Do you see a connection between boxing and architecture? Have you brought your experiences from the former into the latter?

The reason I was involved in boxing stems from the fact that I was strapped economically when I was young. There was a professional gym in the neighborhood, and I was always watching the boxing ring. I thought the four rounds were actually feasible for me. I knew I could actually make money doing it.

At the same time, giving up—which relates to boxing—is very important in life. There was a man known as Fighting Harada who frequently came to the gym I was training at. He was once a world champion in flyweight class. [Editor’s note: The boxer in discussion, Masahiko Harada, is now the honorary chairman of the Japanese Professional Boxing Association.] I watched his sparring practice, and I thought, “That’s just impossible for me!” That’s when I started in architecture.

The connection between architecture and boxing—that’s your question. I think that for any work it’s about suspense. Anticipation is the key. In that sense, there’s a commonality between the two. The other commonality is the fact that nobody is there to help you in both boxing and architecture. In your work, you’re alone. You have to do it alone.

Do you ever view the architect-client relationship as a boxing match?

To a certain degree you can say that. Clients always make demands, but if you always accept and follow them, then you can’t really create a building.

What was it about architecture that made you go into the field? Was there a building or architect that made you say, “This is what I want to do!”?

They say that age 15 is the critical year in life. It’s the most sensitive. I had a wonderful math teacher who really put everything he had into teaching math. The carpenters I saw who kept working frantically, even forgetting lunch, also moved me. I was very impressed by them. These two elements—math and carpentry—converse in architecture. That was my starting point. I could not go to university; I couldn’t even afford to go to an architectural trade school. The only option left was to study by myself. I had to think and act by myself. One thing I decided to do was to read architecture books. I’m from Osaka, which is located about half an hour from Kyoto and Nara. Every Sunday I made a point to go out and look and study the old buildings in the region.

One thing about architecture is that the more you look at good buildings, the more love you have for them. That’s how I was drawn into architecture.

You’ve previously mentioned influences including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Kahn. When did you discover these Western midcentury architects?

When I was 19, I found a book by Le Corbusier at a used bookstore. I really wanted that book, but it was very expensive. I would go back to that bookstore and make sure that the book was buried at the bottom of a pile of books. Every time I would go back, the book would be on the top. I just repeated that process until I was finally able to afford it. That book introduced me to Le Corbusier. I decided I should travel to Europe and really see the buildings. I wanted to see buildings in Japan and, at the same time, to see buildings overseas.

What was it about Le Corbusier’s work that you found interesting?

For one thing, his drawings. Also, the framing of his spaces was completely different from what I had seen in Japan. It was very clear to me that Western architecture was very different from what we have in Japan. I had many friends who studied and went to university for architecture. Those friends told me that if I wanted to be a professional in architecture, then I had to go see with my own eyes the Pantheon in Rome and Parthenon in Greece. That led me to travel. I decided I had to go to Europe, and when I was 24, I went. I visited the Pantheon and the Parthenon. But I didn’t know how to take the Parthenon. At the Parthenon, you see only those columns. I was impressed by the space that the Pantheon had, but at the Parthenon, it’s just columns. I didn’t know how to understand them. I started from there.

Twentieth-century architects—all those architects you mentioned—are intellectuals. At that time, I felt I wanted to become an architect who designed buildings that embody passion and really impress the emotions in the hearts of people. Many architects describe me as a “fighting architect.” Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano would say, “Don’t have any qualms with Ando! He’s a boxer!” But I think architecture is about fighting in a different sense. You have to solidly stand your ground, recognizing where you are and under what conditions. You have to fight in a sort of psychological or spiritual manner. Because I didn’t have any formal education, nobody would take me seriously. I was kind of eliminated or ignored by architects all over the world.

What changed? Why do you think people take you so seriously now? How did you prove yourself?

In 1982, I had my exhibition in Paris hosted by the city’s architectural institute [the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimonie]. Jean Nouvel and other famous architects came. That exhibition showed my work: There were concrete boxes, and inside was this void, spaces with no particular features or anything, just space itself.

It was a space of nothingness in a concrete box, and was just about having an ordinary, quiet life. It seems that made a great impact on European people who visited the exhibition, because it was a rather spiritual or mental experience. It wasn’t known in Europe. To me, that kind of space is ordinary, because in Japan it’s just a room with one flower decorating the space, and that’s about it. Europe may have had that kind of space before, but at that time it was very unusual. It seems the people in Paris got a little bit uneasy or fearful of the concept.

Concrete is so central to your work. Was there a building or structure you saw while educating yourself that made you realize that concrete was the medium that would become a focus of your architecture?

For one thing, concrete is a ubiquitous, ordinary material. Anyone all over the world can buy it. It’s very accessible and easily available. But I wanted to use that as a common material to create very unique architecture. It was about using everybody’s material in a way that nobody else had before. The second part is that historical Japanese buildings are made in concrete, so by using concrete, I wanted to actually continue the tradition, succeeding in the preservation of the country’s architectural DNA.

Concrete was paramount in the architecture of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, too.

Yes, I certainly had some influence from them.

Unlike so much concrete today, which is cheaply done, yours is very specific in its recipe and high quality. How do you take this ordinary material and make it something extraordinary?

Architecture is something I cannot accomplish myself. We need a site supervisor, a construction manager, concrete-forming carpenters, rebar arrangers, and so forth. If all these different people work under a single vision, I think it’s possible. That’s how we do it. It’s the same as a medical operation or surgery: You can’t make a mistake. In this case, no mistakes have been made. Even a single mistake, you have to redo it. In order to make sure there are no mistakes in the concrete preparation and actual forming of it, you need to know the overall planning of the project and its details, as well as the process of making the concrete.

How long did it take to develop “Ando concrete?” How did you come up with the recipe?

Maybe five years. I went back to the basics. Concrete is made of steel bars, the water, the sand, and the aggregate. These elements, once mixed together, have to be in balance. For that you need the bars placed at equal distance. And the mix shouldn’t be runny—it should be more viscous. If you know these basics, it’s possible.

A powerful response often overcomes visitors to your buildings. What it is about concrete that helps achieve this?

It’s not only concrete; it’s concrete and the surroundings. There’s always a tension between the two. How you create that tension is with a vision. By having that vision—and by remaining faithful to it—you get that attention and impact.

What do you think are the main elements involved in making your vision work? Obviously, there’s vegetation, light, water, concrete …

When you create something, the essential part of creation is where you can actually maintain tension in the process. And also, of course, you need a team. Whenever I work in the U.S. or in Europe, the first thing I worry about is whether or not I can assemble a good team, and whether this team can maintain the will to work under one single purpose.

Much of your work early in your career was built in Japan, and from the late ’90s to the present, you’ve started working abroad pretty consistently and especially in America. What’s your relationship to the United States? When did you first visit? What has been your response to America?

My first visit to the States occurred in 1967. I would say that the 1950s was the time for the U.S. While America was on the top of the world, there was peace, because this American ideal of freedom prevailed. I believe strongly that when America was looking after the world, the world was in a very good place. But since then, it has changed. Many countries have emerged, and we now live in a really strange world. America embodies freedom, courage, bravery, and equality. I think these elements of American spirit were reflected in buildings of the 1950s, up to [Eero Saarinen’s] TWA Terminal [completed in 1962]. The Seagram Building [completed in 1958] really embodies what the 20th century was. I believe urban living requires culture. In order to enjoy urban life, you need art and culture; you need the pleasure of eating out and other things. A typical example of that is New York. I really think that New York is the masterpiece of the 20th century. Andy Warhol was a symbol of this. I’d like to see the world going back to that spirit.

You’re now doing your first building in Manhattan: the 152 Elizabeth residences. What’s your relationship with New York City? The city, like your work, is full of tension.

Art depends on how much tension you can build up and maintain. Actually, I’m working in architecture, an environment that has a certain amount of animosity, so there is always tension.

Isamu Noguchi died on December 30, 1988, and for about a period of 15 years, he lived in Japan and the States, but when he was in Japan, he was seen as an American, and when he was here in the States, he was seen as Japanese. From the outside, he was a very successful, internationally renowned artist, but internally he must have had a lot of ambivalence and paradoxical mental fighting. At the same time, he used this tension as the source for his work.

Do you see New York as offering a source of energy for your own work?

To a certain degree, yes. New York has so many famous architects with buildings there: Richard Meier, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry. These people are working side-by-side, very conscious of each other, trying not to be outdone.

Let’s expand on your relationship with America. You’ve designed homes in Chicago, Malibu, and New Mexico; the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis; the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; the Stone Hill Center; and now, the Clark Art Institute. Many of your projects here have been places for art. How do you view these projects within the context of your work, and what has it been like working on them?

More than anything else, the projects in the United States are big! Our office often feels we’re so far away from the sites. They’re large projects with lots of difficulties. We strive for the quality of a space. Using this ubiquitous or mundane material—concrete—we hope to make something wonderful out of it, something nobody else can do. We need physical toughness and mental tension.

Why do you think America has a propensity for big things?

The first reason is that there’s so much land. We don’t have land like this in Japan. Each site is so small there. I feel these American architects must feel the same way. My guess is that—this is my belief—these architects are trying to recreate the spatial experience they had when they were young. That way future generations can also experience it as they did. The terrace at the new visitor’s center here [at the Clark Art Institute], when children come to this facility and look to the hill across the water, I hope they will remember unconsciously that moment for the rest of their lives.

You know the Punta della Dogana I did in Venice? It’s from the 15th century, but inside it’s a completely contemporary, modern space. My wish is for many children to visit the building, so they’re surprised once inside. They’ll see that old things can be maintained and actually restored or changed to the modern world. They will know that it’s important to preserve old things. They will also learn that history is something to be remembered. It’s actually very interesting to learn history, and to know that we leave planet earth as part of it.

All Stories