Tadao Anda of Osaka, Japan, is a self-made architect eliciting poetic and surreal architecture with concrete, light, and glass that synthesises modern ideologies with Japanese tradition while—in essence—yearning to affiliate buildings with nature. The 1995 Pritzker Prize winner’s symbolic and unique quality is associated with the basic, yet enriching modern technique of materials, in particular, the thick reinforced concrete walls, forming restricted boundaries and rigid volumes within, as an allegory of a shield to define tranquil and still domains isolated from the infinite turmoil of the city. Ando’s “smooth-as-silk” exposed concrete, in its purity instead of brutality, plays a central role in reassuring contemplation and spiritual peace, relying on the precision craftsmanship of traditional Japanese wood construction for the concrete’s formwork, with his trademark evenly-distributed holes caused due to the shuttering‘s bolts.
Using the Modern Architectural means of this liberating tangible wall, Ando portrays the intangibility of the exterior nature on the interior walls with juxtaposed dynamic patterns of light that appeal to our senses and reservedly reflect the outside world. Touching on the Japanese philosophies of ineffable living nature and its tactility through changing ethos, he manifests the idea of gaps in varied forms and fenestrations, resurrecting the presence of that transcendent nature to experience the undulating climate—as Kenneth Frampton notes—”such things as a faint drizzle or a sudden unexpected breeze, the onset of twilight or the premonition of dawn.” The subtle equilibrium between the dyads of material and light, tradition and modernity, outside and inside, volume and void, geometry and nature, and body and world constantly emerge unexpectedly in Ando’s works to characterise his Zen-like approach and his divine act of creation.
Azuma Residence (Row House)
The prize-winning Azuma Residence, based on Tadao Ando’s evident tenets of stoicism, was one of his first projects built in 1976, sited in a narrow plot constricted between two party walls in Osaka, Japan. Designed in a rather extreme manner, Ando takes inspiration from the light patios connected with nature in the traditional vernacular Japanese row houses—Machiyas—to create a central patio while turning the entire house inwards with a blank concrete facade on the exterior. The primary intent of the modest concrete enclosure—that “attempts to generate a microcosm”—apart from taking advantage of the narrow site and attaining privacy, was to shun the house from the urbanised city’s brutality and hostility, securing the domestic space independently in the world of nature.
The nude and unadorned concrete box has a forestalling yet inviting recessed entrance door as the only fenestration to reiterate the tradition of a Japanese threshold and vestibule. The central open-to-sky patio penetrates the elongated building’s volume to divide it into three equal parts, shedding lustrous light and binding everchanging nature to the inhabitants’ transitioning movement amidst the entire compartmentalised construct. The static geometric form of the plain Azuma Residence gains fluidity in response to the dynamic harmony of nature’s participation and human life’s activation. Ando’s contemporary technique self-consciously confronts and blends with the Japanese culture with a rare tranquillity that saturates the space, frequenting with varying levels in his other projects ever since.
Chapel on Mt Rokko
Facing the Pacific Ocean with splendid views of the sea, and located on a serene summit on the highest point of Kobe, Hyogo, the Chapel on Mt Rokko, built in 1986, links sacred space and nature anew. The rectangular concrete wedding chapel—along with a bell tower, a garden wall, and a colonnade arcade connecting it to a hotel—is part of a resort complex. The perspectival arcade of frosted-glass walls in concrete frames and shallow frosted-glass vaults celebrates the Japanese allegory of the sacred as the embodiment of the sky and ocean by terminating at the crest of Mt Rokko, overlooking nature. The processional arcade’s volume subtly characterises the Shinto shrine and transitions through a stepped descent into the double-squared chapel.
The synchronicity between the modern and the traditional, explicitly the occidental and the oriental, is expressed by the significance of the crucifix in the chapel as a sign of the West, lit delicately by a slit opening in the roof and a slit opening on the back wall, as opposed to the rather dark and quiet void, with one full-height glass wall opening up to the banked landscape of the garden wall, as a non-sign of the East. Through the opposition of the sign and the non-sign, Ando juxtaposes two countervailing beliefs of spirituality and splits the focal point into two, with the natural landscape contesting the suspended steel crucifix as the ultimate repository for divinity and tranquillity.
The Children’s Museum, a cultural and education centre for children completed in 1989 by Ando, was his first large-scale project, magnificently positioned in a rural area outside Himeji in the Hyogo prefecture atop a hill’s headland overlooking a large lake. Categorised into three elements, the centre consists of the two main museum buildings divided by a staggered pond to the south, a smaller workshop block at the back of the site, and an extensive linear path with walls and a grid of pillars that links and organises the two.
The Japanese concept of Shakkei, or borrowed landscape, is proficiently exercised by Ando here as the tiered reflecting pools surfaced with metallic lustre merge on the undulating topography with the distant natural waters. Apart from Ando’s habitual poetry of concrete and glass, light and shadow, interior and exterior, this monumental project identifies water, forest, and sky as the configurative elements to instil a constant presence of nature. Delving further into the traditional Japanese interrelations of humans and nature, Ando’s Children’s Museum—with its architecture and the opportunity to build in natural topographies—embraces and awakens a newly-discovered sensibility about nature.
Besides being influenced by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, Ando’s architecture charmingly sustains the Japanese philosophies of cultivating timeless relationships with nature, edifying sensorial richness by deftly blending Eastern and Western design ideologies. His architecture of the utmost simplicity synthesises the occidental volume and geometric forms with the Japanese traditions of building with nature, synchronising the living as a bond between geometry and nature. Through the means of transparent logic, abstraction, nature, and place, Tadao Ando has dexterously crafted a language through and beyond minimalism, modernism, standardisation, and mediocrity to create architecture with a meditative exploration that brings a new zest to the human spirit and adorns the world’s rich complexity.
- Frampton, K. (1991) Tadao Ando. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
- Biography: Tadao Ando: The Pritzker Architecture Prize (no date) Biography: Tadao Ando | The Pritzker Architecture Prize. Available at: https://www.pritzkerprize.com/biography-tadao-ando
- Moreno, G.G. (2021) Row house in Sumiyoshi. Azuma House by Tadao Ando, Row House in Sumiyoshi. Azuma House by Tadao Ando | The Strength of Architecture | From 1998. Available at: https://www.metalocus.es/en/news/row-house-sumiyoshi-azuma-house-tadao-ando
- Moreno, G.G. (2021) Monumentality in the mountain. Hyōgo children’s museum by Tadao Ando, Monumentality in the mountain. Hyōgo Children’s Museum by Tadao Ando | The Strength of Architecture | From 1998. Available at: https://www.metalocus.es/en/news/monumentality-mountain-hyogo-childrens-museum-tadao-ando