Photo:Model of Naoshima Project (Naoshima, Kagawa), Naoshima, Kagawa

Tadao Ando: Endeavors in The Field of Honor

He is perhaps, one of, if not the, most internationally-acclaimed and most talked-about Japanese architects in the world, with a red carpet of glittering awards and citations from all parts of the globe—Japan, U.S., Italy, France, and other countries.

Portrait, (Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki)

Easily identifiable by his use of exposed cast-in-place concrete in charcoal gray, perforated with single files of bolt-holes, Tadao Ando is close to the mark of a “genius” who, without formal education, taught himself the methodologies and principles of architecture through self-research, loads of books, encounters, and travels across the world.

Before discovering his ground in architecture, he had already been studying building structures—as a professional boxer at a young age of 15, staging boxing matches in Thailand where he first developed a fascination for Buddhist temples. It was the period from 1965-1968, when the then 24-year-old Ando saved up 600,000 yen ($5,250, October 2017 rate) from part-time jobs and hopped across continents “to see the world”—U.S., Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America—scrutinizing and sketching buildings, homes, churches, temples and environments.

These drawings tucked in Ando’s impressive travel sketchbook is one of the most memorable highlights of his exhibition of his life and works, "10th Anniversary of the National Art Center, Tokyo/Tadao Ando: Endeavors" at the National Art Center Tokyo, running until December 18 this year. A minuscule look at these perspective and elevation drawings clearly reveals the master’s ease with the pen and pencil at manipulating forms, angles and balance of symmetry and asymmetry derived from his childhood days of making wooden models, an early craft he learned from a carpenter neighbor across his home.

Model of Atelier in Oyodo II (Osaka)
Model of 4 x 4 House (Kobe)
Model of Row House in Sumiyoshi (Osaka)
Row House in Sumiyoshi, 1976, Osaka (Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha)

As an introduction to the main sections of the exhibition, a life-size interior model of Ando’s first architectural studio in Oyodo, Osaka, set up in 1969 and rebuilt in 1991, is also displayed, offering the eye a peephole of the enormous library of books Ando had collected throughout his journeys.

From here the hall leads to Section 1 Origins/Houses and Section 2 Light—two significant pivotal elements in Ando’s career.

Koshino House, 1981/1984, Ashiya, Hyogo (Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha)

"I started out on my architectural career by designing urban houses. It was through the process of determinedly working on each one of their designs that I identified the idea…of infusing simple geometric forms with a variety of complex spatial moments and the idea of using concrete, the most ubiquitous building material of our age, to create one-of-a-kind spaces. This is the reason why I consider houses to be where the origins of my architecture lie."

The two sections display in photographs, sketches, videos and scale models an extensive chronicle of Ando’s more than a hundred residential designs—among these, the highly reputed Row House in Sumiyoshi or Azuma House in his hometown Osaka, completed in 1976, and which presented him the Architectural Institute of Japan's annual award in 1979. The house project undeniably represents Ando’s first immense challenge to alter the environmental silhouette of a working-class neighborhood rooted on the ancient “Nagaya” social system into a free flowing plan for modern living. The “Nagaya” row house construction style was a common co-habitation structure during the Edo period that housed lower class samurais and their families around their warrior’s mansion. Replacing one of these dilapidated wooden houses, squeezed next to each other in central Osaka, with a single exposed concrete two-story box void of exterior windows could not be a more radical statement of infusing modernity and tradition, minimalism and chaos, symmetry and disorder, and nature and light.

Observing the plans and mock-up models in the exhibition, three striking features of the Azuma House can be surmised: one is the overall symmetry of the composition, in the gate-like entrance at the very center of the frontal façade, and the geometrical balance of three split parts—in the entire site and in the inner courtyard; second is the brilliant use of spatial dimension laid out evenly within a single geometrical form, and in the open courtyard in the center that allows the residents to move freely within the rooms; third, which is Ando’s strongest forté in urban design, is the exceptional use of light. In the absence of exterior windows, the central courtyard, in concrete, glass and slate, is open to the sky and brings in light and wind in full circulation, keeping the dwellers in intimate connection with nature.

Light is no stranger to Ando’s design strategy. In Section 2, this is exemplified in one of Ando’s excellent achievements, the Church of Light in Ibaraki, Osaka, 1999.

Portrait, (Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki)

"Light is the origin of all being. Light gives, with each moment, new form to being and new interrelationships to things, and architecture condenses light to its most concise being. The creation of space in architecture is simply the condensation and purification of the power of light."

A special module was constructed outside the museum that allows the visitors to step into the dark and serene church interior, completely bathed in suspended silence. Suddenly, as the visitor tiptoes on the sloping wooden floor, an overpowering entrance of bright light seeps through a huge formation of a cross, so slender it creates angles of shadows above the altar like laser beams that seem to uplift one’s spirits in gripping emotion. The illuminating presence is stunning.

Ando equally uses such similar light effects in his other creations: Church on the Water in Hokkaido; UNESCO Meditation Space in Paris; Church in the Forest in Korea; and Church in Hiroo, Tokyo, among others showcased in the exhibition.

Church on the Water, 1988, Yufutsu-gun, Hokkaido (Photo: Yoshio Shiratori)

A kaleidoscope of Tadao Ando’s universal works fills the huge hall of Section 3 Void Spaces and Section 4 Reading the Site. After his pioneer award for the Azuma House in 1979, Ando continuously garnered prizes and citations for many of his outstanding works: the Alvar Aalto Award from Finland in 1985, Gold Medal of Architecture from the French Academy of Architecture in 1989, Carlsberg Architectural Prize from Copenhagen in 1992, the Pritzker Architecture Prize from Chicago in 1995, the AIA Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 2002, and even the Order of Culture from the Japanese Emperor in 2010, and many more.

Over the past 30 years, Ando has mastered his identity for creating spaces within spaces; using height, breadth, spatial circulation, minimalism of material, such as glass to reflect other media; and the forces of light, wind and water to add the warm touch of natural elements. The effect consequently leaves a lasting impression on the users to enter his buildings without the sensation of stoic numbness, but rather with a smooth transition of movement and interrelations within the surroundings.

"I have persistently attempted…to create spaces with no defined function inside my buildings in hope of inducing people to gather within them. Sometimes these void spaces take the form of paths that meander up from the ground and into midair; sometimes they form stagnation points or pockets where people can pause to catch their breadth."

This invitation to users to traverse through spaces can be seen in such buildings as the TIMES I + II 1983-1984 in Kyoto. Walking down the staircase adjacent to the building with the waterscape to the left soon gives one a wide, open interwoven communicative between exterior and interior, continuing the walkway to the elevated levels.

Shanghai Poly Grand Theatre, 2014, Shanghai, China (Photo: Shigeo Ogawa)

An eye-catching scale model of the Shanghai Poly Theatre 2009-2014 is equally spellbinding. A single box of vertical grid exterior walls is cut from its monotony through giant cylindrical openings in the center, which again, Ando has successfully attempted to manipulate to infuse light reflection and a vision of the lakeside across the water garden.

A huge enclosed module inside the exhibition hall is devoted to the construction of the Benesse House Museum and Benesse House Oval 1988-1992 in the art island of Naoshima, one of Ando’s massive projects harmonizing concrete structures within forested surroundings.

Model of Naoshima Project (Naoshima, Kagawa), Naoshima, Kagawa

In many ways, walking through the entire exhibition feels like being part of one of Tadao Ando’s dynamic spatial dimensions. Passing first through his residential designs, the urban scale, except for the lack of height, ascends drastically into huge geometric forms and finally, vast sprawling developments across acres of land. An example of this is the Hill of the Buddha 2012-2015 in Hokkaido. Almost mouth gaping, the head of a 13.5-meter tall Buddha statue juts out of a 40-meter tunnel, surrounded by 140 hectares of lush lavender fields. Ando once said that his pieces look like they can be done by anyone but only he can do them.

In Section 5 Building Upon What Exists, Creating That Which Does Not Exist and the last Section 6 Nurturing, we come across more large-scaled structures depictive of historical preservations, such as the Punta della Dogana 2006-2009 in Venice and the ongoing Bourse de Commerce project in Paris commenced in 2016. Without destroying the original structural contents, Ando replaces the brick and stone exterior walls of the 17th century Venetian palazzo with thermally broken metal wood in painted galvanized steel, designing new arched windows and glazed doors for brighter lighting and thermal and acoustic performance. Both impressive scale models exemplify the rebirth of existing monuments adapted to the current mode of living.

Punta della Dogana,2009, Venice, Italy(© Palazzo Grassi SpA. Foto: ORCH, orsenigo_chemollo)
Model of Punta della Dogana (Venice, Italy)

"Renovation is neither about simply preserving the old nor overwriting the old with something new. Rather, it is about creating a condition where the old and new coexist in a fine balance."

Omotesando Hills, 2006, Shibuya, Tokyo (Photo: Mitsuo Matsuoka)

The museum visit which may need approximately two hours to grasp leaves one with a sackful of admiration and absorption of the architect’s full devotion to the exhaustive meaning of space, movement, coercion, and balance of life and nature. Tadao Ando may always be launching his armies across the battlefield, as the “urban guerilla” he is often referred to, but his approach to the dynamics of architecture will always remain still, undisturbed, all-embracing, and without doubt, rest as infinitely cosmic landmarks for decades to follow.

"10th Anniversary of the National Art Center, Tokyo/Tadao Ando: Endeavors"
National Art Center Tokyo
Until December 18, 2017
10:00-20:00 Friday-Saturday
Closed on Tuesdays
Adults 1,500 yen

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