Tadao Ando

Tadao Ando – The Japanese Architect Everyone Needs To Know

January 15, 2022

“There’s a close relationship between boxing and architecture,” claims Tadao Ando, one of the greatest architects of our time. “In both, you’ve got to go to the end and be completely focused throughout the whole process.”

The person behind many stunning buildings, including the museums we’re all familiar with on Naoshima, the island of art, Ando has a life story that is fascinating and completely unlike that of most architects. He didn’t come from a stable family, didn’t get an education, and didn’t even have experience or a mentor who taught him what to do. I hope you’re sitting down, because Ando’s life story is too riveting to stop halfway, and is reflected to this day in his work, which has always danced the tango with material and concept, two elements which battle each other time after time, until they are reconciled in a masterpiece.

So how did a person who never formally studied architecture become one of the most prominent architects of our time and even win the Pritzker Prize?

Tadao Ando discovers material

Ando and his twin brother were born in 1941 in the Nagaya neighborhood in Osaka, which is known for its many workshops. Ando’s brother, Takao Kitayama, remained with his mother, while Ando went to stay with his grandmother when he was two years old. The reason he was sent to his grandmother was that there was no one to continue the Ando family name, because his mother was an only child, and it was also customary to raise twins apart.

Ando relates that the neighborhood he grew up in and the workshops there exposed him to the miracle that takes place when material wears a form in accordance with human wishes. In addition, when he was a boy, extra stories were added to his childhood home, and he was fascinated by the sight of the professionals’ work and by the way the light shone into the building.

טדאו אנדו

But Ando was lightyears away from becoming an architect. His grades at school weren’t good, university wasn’t cheap, and he was investing his energy in another arena – boxing. They say he was an extremely gifted boxer before, against all the odds, he decided to study architecture, and did so in an extremely original way. He borrowed textbooks from his friends who were studying at the university, and made up his mind to study the subject on his own. He even tried to work at architecture firms to gain experience. But none of it really worked out…. He didn’t understand any of the architecture books, and didn’t last more than three months at any of the jobs. Frustrated by how difficult it was and by the bitter fact that he wouldn’t be able to decipher the secrets of the trade on his own, Ando decided to work, save up, and travel the world in order to see the greatest works of architecture. He wanted to learn through his feet, through observation and through inspiration.

After being profoundly impressed by the greatest buildings in Italy and Greece, enchanted by the way the light shone into the Pantheon in Rome, and after learning the significance of Greek geometry, Ando returned to Japan and opened his own architecture firm. Without a qualification, without experience and ultimately without work either.

Urban guerrilla warfare

Ando founded his own architecture firm at 29 years of age. In order to circumvent the obstacle of not having his own construction license, he hired architects to help him with the planning and the necessary documents, and so he began his journey. In order to draw attention, he knew he would have to create something unique, something to set him apart from the market, and thus came about the Azuma House in Sumiyoshi in Osaka, which was built in 1976. The building was made entirely of concrete, with no outward facing windows. In order to compensate for the lack of light, the passage leading from the front to the back of the house was built without a ceiling.

This contrasted sharply with most of the projects Japanese architects were involved in during the 60s: residential buildings. By designing a private house protected from the external environment by concrete, Ando wanted to emphasize that a person needs their own space in the noisy, crowded city. The house is a person’s “urban guerrilla warfare”, in which they can shut themselves off from the city, the world outside, neighbors and any burden they dislike.

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From then on, the bare concrete and atypical ways of letting in the light became the hallmarks of Ando’s work, and he was considered a young radical, which could both benefit and harm his reputation. He also had a peculiar passtime: he liked to roam the Kansai region in Japan and propose unsolicited construction plans for empty land. They say that this is how the residential project came about on the slope of Mount Rokkō in Kobe – a slope so steep that no one had even thought of building on it. In spite of the great amazement that accompanied the construction, the project was so successful that Ando later built several expansions. The slope was what gave Ando his inspiration, and he didn’t even consider flattening it out.

His approach of not altering natural elements and instead using them in the designs of the buildings he built reached one of its peaks in a one-of-a-kind building in Ibaraki in Osaka.

And there was light – Tadao Ando and the Church of the Light

In 1989, Ando was approached by a Protestant congregation to build a chapel on their site. I don’t know if he told them in advance that he didn’t intend to install lights or any other electrical lighting in the building, but in the end this fact is what made the chapel one of the key attractions in Ibaraki (and not for religious reasons).

The main light source in the building is two slits in the reinforced concrete which form a cross as tall and wide as the wall. The idea is that the light shining in through the solid concrete expresses the contrast between the spiritual and the mundane, the material, the corporeality, the materialism that exists within all humans. In addition, the church itself isn’t crowded with details or items, and the building is almost completely empty apart from a small number of pews. The reason is that empty space leaves room for other things – such as the spirituality which now has space in the dark structure.

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Another building in which Ando makes use of only natural light is the Chichu Art Museum on the island of Naoshima that I’ve written about before. The entire museum is underground in order to avoid destroying the island’s natural beauty. Later on, Ando decided to incorporate more elements of nature in his architecture, and in the Museum of Wood Culture in Hyogo he incorporated wood in the structure of the museum, which resembles a drum that the road passes through.

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Another building that Tadao Ando covered in wood was a surprise even for Ando himself. After he had finished building a house on the coast of Hyogo in the early 2000s, the neighbor on the plot next door asked Ando to build him something similar. The architect saw it as an opportunity to express his life motif – being one of twin brothers. The building he built for the neighbor was a mirror reflection of the first one, but he decided to cover the second one in wood. Perhaps he wanted to say that, even though the two weren’t made of the same material, they were ultimately the same.

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Where to see Tadao Ando’s masterpieces

As I’m writing these lines, Japan is still closed to tourists, but if you still want to see his work, Ando is responsible for many spectacular buildings all over the world. Here’s a list of a few buildings worth checking out if you visit the following destinations:

Texas, USA, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Oaxaca, Mexico, Fundación Casa Wabi

Neuss, Germany, Langen Foundation

Taichung, Taiwan, Asia Museum of Modern Art

Seoul, South Korea, JCC (Jaeneung Culture Center)

Shanghai, China, The Poly Theater (my favorite)

Of course this is just a partial list, and there are loads of other marvellous buildings designed by Tadao Ando, the groundbreaking architect whose material and concept are always reflected in a fascinating way in his buildings.

Don’t forget to check out his buildings when you come to Japan!

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