Tadao Ando is the world’s best-known Japanese contemporary architect. He has received many prestigious international awards, including the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1995, and a “Laurea honoris causa” in 2002 from the School of Architecture at Rome’s La Sapienza University. Ando has developed a unique, unmistakable style, blending old Japanese tradition and contemporary architecture in a harmonious manner. His career is all the more impressive when one considers that he’s largely self-taught. Born in 1941 in Osaka, Ando worked as a professional boxer and truck driver before apprenticing as a carpenter and turning to design. After continually att empting to have his carpentry clients accept his designs, only to be turned down, he decided to teach himself architecture by devouring the reading list of university architecture students. What was meant to be read over the course of four years took him only one. Additionally, he took distance education courses in drawing to prepare himself for his profession.
At the age of 18 he visited temples, shrines, and tea houses in Kyoto and Nara, observing the traditional architecture in the area. However, in the 1960s he travel to Europe and the
United States to analyse great buildings and document his observations in a detail sketch book. Visiting buildings designed by renowned architects like Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Kahn.He returned to Osaka in 1968 to establish his own design studio. Since setting up his own practice, the famously self-taught architect has completed over 200 buildings, with notable examples including the Rokko housing developments in Kobe (1983-99), the Church of the Light in Osaka (1989), the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis (2001) and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (2002). In recognition of his consistent ability to create functional yet exquisitely crafted and emotionally engaging buildings
So what defines Tadao Ando’s architecture?
His stubbornness and tenacity have stayed with him throughout the years, allowing him to pursue the singular vision that defines his architecture. Inspired by architects like Le Corbusier and having immersed himself in great classical architecture, he’s continually striving to create and transcend what has come before.
One of Tadao Ando’s defining characteristics is his use of concrete. What distinguishes his use of this common material is the smooth, almost reflective finish he’s able to achieve. Combined with bare, minimalist walls, this allows him to bring focus to the form of the building, as this is what he believes brings emotional impact to architecture. Ando achieves his characteristic concrete finish by varnishing the forms before pouring begins. His iconic Church of Light, built in 1989 and located just outside Osaka, is a prime example of the power of simplicity. Composed of a cement box perforated by light coming through a cruciform slit, it’s a work that Ando once said embodied the key principles of his architecture practice.
This guiding philosophy is ever present in Ando’s work. His 1976 Row House in Sumiyoshi, or Azuma House, is an early work that shows the impact of his mastery of shapes. The small personal home consists of two concrete rectangular volumes without exterior windows that give way to a rectangular outer courtyard to provide an oasis from city life.
For Ando, architecture is at its best when it allows people to experience the beauty of nature. The continuity of indoor and outdoor space is a principle typical of Japanese culture and Ando takes this philosophy to new heights by incorporating modern touches. His work at the Makomanai Takino Cemetery in Sapporo, where he framed a 44-foot-tall Buddha in a lavender hill, highlights how he uses nature to guide people’s experience with the space.
Water is a recurring theme in Ando’s work. In Fort Worth, the museum is surrounded by an expanse of water that reflects a second vision of that architecture that is, for Ando, just as much a part of the work as the physical building. By using water and light, he is also able to introduce movement to his work, as well as an ephemeral quality achieved by how the water changes throughout the course of the day.
In keeping with Ando’s minimalist aesthetic, his use of light allows him to subtly guide the mood of each building. Whether it’s the powerful burst that breaks through the cement of the Church of Light or the play of light and shadow in Tokyo’s 21_21 Design Sight, his strategic use of natural light is a hallmark of his style. With sparse interior decoration, people are left to ponder the space and the passage of time via the changing light dynamics within his architecture.
Ando’s desire to help people reflect on their inner selves rather than focus on the outward visual is just one way the Japanese Zen philosophy manifests itself in his work. The architect acts as a guide, creating strategic pathways through his architecture that allows visitors to meditate on the shapes and forms without distraction. His meticulous use of space and his emphasis on the physical experience of architecture is a large part of what has made him one of the greatest architects of our time.