The natural force of Tadao Ando
The celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando, an honorary Royal Academician, gave a lecture to an audience of 800 at the Royal Academy’s Annual Japanese Cultural evening on 3 November 2004. Between showing a delegation from the Japanese construction industry around London, admiring Norman Foster’s Swiss Re tower and signing 64 copies of his latest book, he found time for an interview with Jeremy Melvin.
Shenzhenculturalcenter Shenzhen Cultural Center by Arata Isozaki and associates Shenzhen Cultural Center by Arata Isozaki and AssociatesUniversal influences
Tadao Ando’s architecture has an extraordinarily universal appeal. Westerners and Easterners, architects and non-architects alike – even those looking at photographs as opposed to the actual buildings – gaze in amazement at how, using little more than concrete, glass and wood, he manages to incorporate the ineffable forces of nature like sunlight, wind and ocean into his designs. He relishes the result. ‘A few days ago,’ he says, speaking through the interpreter Simon Prentis, ‘I was struck by a comment I overheard from somebody who had just seen a van Gogh painting. “That was fantastic. It is worth living just to see that.” If my architecture can create that kind of response, to encourage people to say “My God, that is fantastic, nature is fantastic” I would be very happy.’
This universality, reaching beyond words and cultural differences, comes from a very personal worldview. ‘Architecture is an expression of the human spirit, I believe. Though I am Japanese, I travel and take in influences from the West, and express western culture in a Japanese context, and try to show how they can relate to each other… I hope that if people around the world respond to that and feel a common thread with it, they may do something in a small way to bring us together as a human race.’
Le Corbusier and other European influences
Famously, he did not go to architecture school but educated himself through travel and searching out experiences in his native city of Osaka. Born in 1941, he became aware of architecture as the city re-emerged around him from the ashes of World War II. He explains: ‘I wanted to become an architect because I noticed it all around me and realised I would be interested in it. But as I didn’t have the money to go to university I thought it would be more practical to go and see it for myself. It was as much out of necessity as anything else.
‘When I first came to Europe [in 1965] the two things I most wanted to do were to meet Le Corbusier and to see the Pantheon, because of the light. It made me think of the depth of tradition and culture [in Rome]… it was amazing… But I didn’t quite make it in time to meet Le Corbusier. He died in the Summer of 1965 and I didn’t get to France until the Autumn… Fortunately, the Pantheon is always there.’
He made up for not meeting Le Corbusier in a most unusual way. One day a stray dog wandered into his studio in Osaka and decided to stay. ‘First I thought I would call him Kenzo Tange’ (after the most influential figure in post-war Japanese architecture) ‘but then I realised I couldn’t kick Kenzo Tange around. So I called him Le Corbusier.’
Art and freedom
One side of Tadao Ando’s unique formation as an architect came from local influences. ‘It was hard work to make modern Osaka.’ It grew into a modern city after being razed to the ground during World War II. Architecture – good, bad and indifferent – was all around him, but there was also a sense of freedom that was exploited by the Gutai group of artists who grew out of Osaka in the post war period. ‘Influenced by Jackson Pollock they were inspired to go beyond conventional ways of thinking about art. They were not restricted to the confines of a canvas.’ Of the Gutai group; Yoshihara believed that artists should never produce copies and always challenge convention; Shinamoto used his shaved head as a screen for projecting images; and Shiraga painted with his feet while swinging on a rope. ‘It was a ferment of new thought and I realised that “my God, if you can do this with fine art, then why not with architecture?”’ These contacts gave Ando a sense of freedom which allowed him to pursue a personal acquisition of architectural knowledge that a more conventional education would have stifled.
Freedom is crucial to the creative process, believes Ando. He explains, it is the need ‘to give [artists] as much freedom as possible’ that distinguishes the newly finished Aomori Museum in Japan, from the recently completed art gallery in Fort Worth, and the Fondation Pinault in Paris, which is due to open in 2008. Both those institutions mix displays of permanent collections with temporary exhibitions, while the Aomori, in Japan, is ‘designed to show living art in the process of creation’.
Politics and cultural difference
Culture, suggests Ando, affects us on two levels. ‘There is the individual level where art can contribute to personal feelings… [and] you can have something that comes through a country as a whole. For example, over the conflict in Iraq you can have the American point of view and the French point of view.’
‘If we look at the American vision of the world, which is currently dominant, it is a consume-and-throwaway society… wherever you look there is a another hamburger stand, and you ask, “hang on, is this right?”… Part of what I try to do is to resist that. I would like to find myself in different parts of the world, France or England or Asia, and find something native to those places, particularly when you consider the current American project to suck oil out of the planet and use it to destroy everything…’
‘Part of the reason why I incorporate a sense of nature [in my designs] us in the hope that people who see them will gain a new appreciation of nature, to look at it and gain an impression of their natural environment.’
The culture of buildings
As ‘repositories of human possibilities [which] reveal what humans can do’ museums have a great responsibility, says Tadao Ando. They have to work at a collective level. But ‘for the architect who has to design their space, there is also a responsibility to make sure that visiting is a pleasant experience and that the visitor has a good time.’ So museums have to address this dichotomy between the two levels of culture.
For Ando this dichotomy is perhaps more important than any difference between individual cultures. ‘I don’t look at art [from other cultures] differently, though as far as Western art is concerned, Duchamp was a turning point.’ The influence of his travels in his own work is more elusive. ‘I don’t know that I have brought my experiences of different cultures directly to bear on my designs, but what I can say is that the process of designing was different [because of those experiences], and if the process is different then the result will be different too.’
He has an uncanny ability either to avoid any specific reference to any particular culture, as in the meditation space for UNESCO, or to fashion a force of nature into an image which has a specific cultural resonance, as in the Church of Light in his home town of Osaka. The meditation space confirms how light and shadow reach beyond words and across cultural differences, while in the church, light from the rising sun picks out a cross in the east wall.
On poverty and wealth
Perhaps because of his work’s immediate appeal to the senses, Tadao Ando is reluctant to put his design ideas into words. He sketches incessantly, in books, on his business cards and any scrap of paper he can find, though he won’t be drawn about the techniques he used to create a series of six luscious prints he gave to the Royal Academy, other than to confirm ‘they are a means of working out thoughts – they are an expression of feeling’.
He is also very modest about his own status. Colin Rowe, borrowing Isaiah Berlin’s formulation, once suggested a fox knows many things in contrast to the hedgehog’s single but large idea. Rowe famously bemoaned the dearth of foxes among the pioneers of modernism, but so protean is Ando’s character and so broad is his knowledge of world cultures, he might seem like a prime candidate for that elusive fox of modern architecture. In such company though, he confesses, ‘I’m not sure I count’.
What counts for Ando is ‘to make buildings that give a sense of power and inspiration to people… space for the spirit. As we become richer in material but poorer in heart I would like to return to Einstein’s comment about Japan [immediately after World War II] about the country being poor in wealth but rich in spirit.’