Historically, architecture has always been an essential characteristic in defining a civilization. Tadao Ando, master of architecture from Japan, has not only innovated the way structures are built, but, through his work, he has also defined what we can now consider modern Japanese architecture.
There is no doubt his work will be marked in history as defining the contemporary Japanese savoir-faire and culture. In the fall of 2011, The GROUND had the privilege of interviewing Tadao Ando in Osaka, where we had the opportunity to receive some insight on the work of a great master of architecture.
What is “fascinating architecture” to you?
I think people are fascinated by the energy generated in a place where differing things collide together, rather than by spaces that have been attuned to complete harmony. I have worked on several projects dealing with the theme of “dialogues between the past and present.” The first one was the Nakanoshima Urban Egg project. Nakanoshima, a sandbar nestled between two rivers flowing through the middle of Osaka, is lined with historical buildings.
Among them is the Osaka City Central Public Hall, which I had proposed to preserve and revitalize by inserting a new egg-shaped hall inside of it while maintaining the appearance of the building’s exterior. I thought that the energy of the collision between the old and new could generate a stimulating space that would fascinate visitors. Although this proposal did not become reality, in 2010, I was finally able to realize a similar concept in Italy, where I inserted a concrete box into a 15th-century building for the Punta della Dogana in Venice.
So, is the essence of your architectural work to create fascination and to impart it upon the people of today and the future?
By instilling fascination into visitors, people gather naturally, join together, and initiate conversations. My goal is to create architecture that does this. Some time ago, I built the Church of the Light in Ibaraki in Osaka. The church is an unadorned square box as seen from the exterior, but upon stepping inside, one is faced by a cross formed by the light shining in through slits in a wall. The plain square box is given life by the light. “Fascination” is born in the space from the light of nature.
In the Church on the Water, a cross stands outside upon an expansive pool of water. Those who visit the church offer their prayers to the cross that towers before a background that shows rich change across the seasons. The scenery changes from moment to moment as the seasons change and the sun passes through the sky. It is through this change that we feel the presence of life. Here, where the architecture resonates with nature, I thought I could fascinate people by making them aware of life. I believe that the source of all creation lies within my wish to make architecture “to create fascination beyond imagination.”
At Naoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea, I built museum and hotel facilities on a decrepit site that was bare of trees due to the pollution from a nearby factory. Before building anything, I had wanted to return the exposed mountain back into a green forest. In order not to ruin the natural landscape, I built most of the architecture underground and planted trees around it. All of the other Naoshima projects follow this concept. The Chichu Art Museum is also one of them. Through interacting with modern artwork set within the rich natural environment, visitors can take their time to think about how to lead a “life with fascination.” I hoped that this juxtaposition of architecture, art, and nature would generate “fascination.”
I can grasp a sense of the depth of your connection to art from the number of museums that you have worked on. When you were younger, you were involved with the avant-garde Gutai Art Society of Japan. What kind of influence did you take from them?
I had the opportunity to interact with members of the Gutai group from the late ’50s to ’60s. I was particularly strongly influenced by the group’s leader, Jiro Yoshihara, who said, “Don’t copy other people. Do what cannot be done by others.” Since then, I have always thought about how to take challenges to do what nobody else could do through architecture.
I began studying architecture as a teenager and continued to learn by working throughout my 20s and 30s. I also looked at buildings day and night and gained experience through actually experiencing spaces. I was moved most strongly by the enormous ancient structures of Kyoto and Nara, such as the Nandaimon of Todaiji Temple from the Kamakura Period. I was fascinated by the fact that buildings of such great scale were envisioned in that age and by how there were people who had actually constructed them.
I was also moved by the Tai-an, a tearoom made by Sen-no-Rikyu that has the area of only two tatami mats. That extremely small space contains a universe within it. In contrast to the people who made enormous buildings like Todaiji, there were also those who made very delicate spaces. Though different in size, both kinds of architecture can instill strong fascination within visitors. The contrasting Japanese aesthetics of the delicate and bold have been engraved deeply within my heart, and it remains to be a source of my creativity even now.
Japanese people have a reputation for being delicate and nimble-fingered, but by taking a look at historical buildings, one can appreciate that the Japanese also have had quite bold and daring imaginations. It is important to see beyond such stereotypes. Anybody living within society should doubt the conventions that they follow and consciously work to break them. I believe that if everybody could lead their lives carrying a curiosity for new concepts, society would in turn become more stimulating and interesting. I hope to provide opportunities for people to realize this through the process of creating architecture.
Your ideas are sensational, but do your ideas that step outside of the box ever cause conflicts with your clients?
Of course, we are not always in agreement. I take time to engage in conversation with the client before developing a project, and sometimes we throw our ideas against one another.
For the Row House in Sumiyoshi, I cut out the middle from a line of three row houses and inserted a concrete box. The row houses were originally connected to each other, so it was a daring task to even separate them. The concrete box is divided into three sections, with a courtyard in the center. There are no windows on the exterior walls, but light and wind is brought into the interior through the courtyard. Using this courtyard, I tried to create another universe in the confined space. Rikyu’s Tai-an is a small tearoom, but when one steps inside, it seems to be much bigger because one has a sense of entering another universe. I sought to create the same experience in the Row House at Sumiyoshi. This was an idea borne from the fascination that was engraved within me from my visit to the Tai-an. When the project was built, however, I was criticized by other architects, who said that the house was full of the architect’s ego and that no thought had been given to the people who were going to live there.
What was the main reason for this criticism, in your point of view?
If one looked at the house from a conventional point of view, it diverged widely from common sense. Most architects tried to make something better by combining what already existed. This is brilliant in itself, but as I have mentioned, I had been trying to break conventions, so I think it is only expected that the building was not understood.
I have been to the Church of the Light and I felt that it was a very quiet and dignified space. The quality of the light creating the cross naturally allowed me to become submerged in the clear air in a state of relaxation. Since you are able to make such wonderful spaces by breaking convention, I had imagined that you would tend to receive more positive support for your work.
There were of course people who expressed their appreciation, too. The ones who appreciated the work the most are the clients. For a fact, they have managed to continue living in that space for 35 years. Anyhow, I was not bothered too much by the criticism. I was trying to fight the conventions of society, so was only natural for there to be criticism. If anything, those voices gave me the energy to take on my next challenges.
It seems like the ’60s were a very interesting time. It was a period when you could experimentally express and search for new ideas.
I think that was the prime age of a youthful Japan. It was an interesting period. But Japan is now entering its old age. This age is becoming less interesting in many aspects. One cause for this is the country’s stability. After experiencing rapid economic growth and as the bubble grew, Japan became very stable. However, after the bubble burst, the country has declined and become weak. The Japanese who had experienced the stable life cannot easily free themselves from it. I think the current times are the worst. Unless the Japanese citizens grasp this reality and start working to stand up once again, the country will have no future.
You have built your career in a society where academia holds great value. Have you ever felt failure or frustration working in this society?
Life is not easy. This is a fact that has been etched into my mind and body. There are so many things that do not go well. But while failure can be depressing when it comes amidst success, there is only failure so I think nothing of it. If you are afraid of failing, you will not be able to open the gates to a new world. In this sense, I am privileged for having developed immunity against failure.
From the viewpoint of the general public, you are seen as a man of great success – it seems that there is a big gap between how you are seen and how you see yourself.
I do not care about failure and I do not think too much about success either. I am constantly trying to cross new barriers, so as soon as I jump over one, another appears right away. There is no time for me to be thinking about success. While fighting day in and day out, I am only concerned about whether I am facing the right direction. Seeing the quintessence of Japanese aesthetics in the Tai-an or the Nandaimon at Todaiji, I would think about how I can catch up to the power of the architecture and to the people who made the buildings; or looking at Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasiums, I would think about how to someday exceed his architecture. I am only trying to live while facing forward. In reality, I will never be able to even move close to the work of Kenzo Tange, but I am always striving to do so. Because I am working towards goals, I do not really feel like I am struggling.
Do you get the inspiration for your architecture after you have visited the site?
Yes. While looking at the site, I read the characteristics of the land, feel the conditions of nature such as the light and wind, and then think about the plan. I am not quite skillful enough to develop plans within the virtual space of a computer. I conduct my work through my body, so I must maintain both my physical and mental strength.
You have also been working on reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake. What plans do you have in mind?
I am advancing a project to make forests for reposing the souls of those who lost their lives. Trees will be planted together with the local residents on the mounds of rubble created by the tsunami and atop the safe high grounds. People who see these forests will think about those who passed away in the disaster. I believe the forests will also play a role in passing on memories into the future.
I also initiated the Momo-Kaki Orphans Fund, which aims to gather donations for supporting the education of the children who lost their families to the earthquake and tsunami.
What prompted you to form this charity?
I initially established the fund following the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe on January 17, 1995. The disaster that brought great devastation also made me realize the importance of family and local communities. We cannot live on our own. We should never forget that we are living together by supporting each other, because such disasters can happen at any time.
What do you have to say for all the creators in New York?
People from all around the world gather in New York and let their strong individualities collide, so it is a place full of energy unlike anywhere else. At times you may get hurt, but if you hold onto your goals and work for them, I believe that you will eventually find a light. If you can shine in New York, you will shine in the world. In order to do so, though, you must be closely aware of where you stand, and be thinking everyday about what you can do for society and about what you can communicate. I think that these are all the essential elements that you need to create something new.
(Interview, Sai Morikawa)
(Translation, Shin Iwai)