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Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008
Icon and iconoclast
Tadao Ando's architectural vision goes way beyond buildings. He's an . . .
By EDAN CORKILL
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.