Text © Shane O’Toole. Photographs of Tadao Ando © Kate Horgan Photography. All other photographs courtesy of Tadao Ando Architect & Associates. Fuller version of the piece first published in The Sunday Times, September 30, 2007, as “Cemented” (Click on images to enlarge)
Squeals of delight greeted Bono as he showed up to introduce Tadao Ando, the world’s most decorated architect, in front of 2,500 admirers at the RDS in Dublin last Sunday. Referring to the ageless 66-year-old’s trademark Beatle haircut, U2′s front man said: “Ando-san is John, Paul, George and Ringo, rolled into one. If you’re a fan of architecture, this is Shea Stadium.” Finding a voice is the hardest thing for an artist, he observed, but “Ando, a Buddhist punk with a Presbyterian eye, has invented his own language. He is the world heavyweight champion of concrete, light and critical regeneration.”
The love-bombing of Ando had begun a day earlier in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France at the home of Paddy McKillen, an Irish developer who owns Dublin’s Clarence Hotel, along with Bono, Edge, U2′s guitarist, and Derek Quinlan, another developer. There to discuss the design of a small art gallery for McKillen, Ando was amazed when the artists Sean Scully, James Turrell and Anish Kapoor arrived for lunch. France’s greatest architect, Jean Nouvel, who is designing a winery on an adjoining site, also dropped by. Lord Foster, architect of the new Clarence, piloted his jet down from London just to say hello before dashing off to Barcelona to unveil his revamp of the legendary Camp Nou stadium.
Dinner that evening for Ando was chez Bono in Killiney. The two global campaigners have become friends since they met in Ando’s home town of Osaka last year. Bono credits him with helping to get Africa and poverty on the agenda of next July’s G8 summit in Tokyo, while Ando, speaking through an interpreter, says Bono deserves the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of “the wonderful things he has been doing for the planet and aids.”
Neither man any longer seems fulfilled devoting all his energy to the calling at which he once achieved real greatness. Somewhere along the line the creative work ceased to be an end in itself and became the means to an end.
The Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, in which Kobe was devastated and 6,000 people died, had a profound effect on Ando and his career. “As I was working as an architect, I started to think what I could do for society, because I was gaining influence. Mother Earth is very sick, so architects should speak out more.” Ando has become a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, whose numerous campaigns – including the Hyogo Green Network and the Setouchi Olive Foundation’s Little Acorn Operation – have led to the planting of millions of trees by volunteers, many of them children, throughout Japan.
Perhaps that is why his lecture, Creating Dreams – presented by the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the RIAI and sponsored by Dublin’s Kerlin Gallery, New York’s Yoshii Gallery and the Clarence Hotel – was so disconcerting. An energetic, diminutive figure with the solid set of the fighter he once was, the bruised eyes of an insomniac and the rattling voice of a mobster, Ando was funny as he reeled off the entertaining anecdotes of an extraordinary life. The images projected on the wall were beautiful but strangely hollow. The work was left largely unexplored as few insights were offered to his creative process beyond the veneer of the architect’s repetitive, rags-to-riches mantra: “Never give up.”
He was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Osaka during the war and reared by his grandmother from the age of two. Hot-tempered and a poor scholar, he followed his twin brother into professional boxing at the age of 17. He fought 12 bouts, including one in Bangkok, but “was not talented as a boxer,” he says, “and you have to have talent.”
He had wanted to be an architect from the day he helped a carpenter extend his grandmother’s house when he was 15 years old. “In Japan it was thought that only those from the socially elite can be architects,” he says. “But if you give your whole soul, you can.” He had discovered a book on Le Corbusier in a second-hand bookshop about the same time and “turned its pages black” from copying and recopying the plans. “By repeating and repeating, you come gradually to understand more and more,” he says.
He is self-taught, largely through frequent travelling with a sketchbook in Japan, Europe, Africa, India and the United States from 1962 until he opened his office in Osaka at the end of the 1960s. Almost three decades later, Ando became the first mere high school graduate appointed as a professor at Tokyo University. But something was lost along the way – and not through tiredness or lack of effort. His stamina, even at an age when most of his contemporaries are retiring, has not slackened. Perhaps too many prizes and accolades are dangerous for artists. Whatever, Ando the outsider was the more interesting architect.
The change in his work was becoming evident 15 years ago – although it was not noticed at the time – at the World Expo in Seville, where his Japanese Pavilion, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, was the star of the show, a spectacle of globalisation. Part temple, ark and circus tent, the massive structure seems in retrospect to have outgrown its content and adopted a celestial scale borrowed from the untempered monumentalism of Étienne-Louis Boullée, the 18th-century French neoclassicist.
It is a characteristic of many of Ando’s later works, which – because of their enormous scale and in deference to the delicacy of their exquisite settings – abandon the conventions of architecture for the pretensions of land art. That’s why his representational image of choice has become the aerial photograph, the celebration of an abstract concept over the physical reality.
Of course, there are still hauntingly beautiful moments to enjoy – an elliptical lotus pond the size of a football pitch, a mountainside of regimented flower tubs, a million scallop shells forming a shallow artificial beach. But these decorative devices, cloaking and concealing buried buildings, have grown increasingly fantastical as Ando has worked for the fashion industry – for Benetton, Armani, Issey Miyake and Karl Lagerfeld. And no number of monumental staircases – despite thrilling overtones of Piranesi, de Chirico or Escher – nor architectural motifs recycled from his earlier days can conceal the fact that Ando will be remembered and revered not for what he will do, but for what he has already done, in the 1970s and 1980s.
He knows it himself. The two images he chose to sketch as dedications to those who bought his book in Dublin were completed then: the Azuma row house in Sumiyoshi – which influenced works in Ireland as disparate as O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Hudson House in Navan, Boyd Cody’s Ballagh House in Dublin’s Broadstone and Ronald Tallon and Michael Warren’s 1798 memorial at Oulart, County Wexford – and the Church of the Light in Osaka. Of his recent output, only the tiny 4×4 beachfront tower house in Kobe comes close, but even here the once-contemplative courtyard has become a cyclopean eye in the sky.
Back then, Ando’s introspective architecture – shutting out chaotic urban surroundings but admitting light and an intimate representation of nature – was seen as a form of resistance mediating between universal modernisation and rooted cultures everywhere. Combining the balance of judo with the brute force of boxing, he transformed the ephemeral Shoji screen of traditional Japanese houses into a massive protective shell against an alienating world.
That’s where his greatness lies. That’s why he became one of the godfathers of minimalism. He used the industrial materials of our time – steel, glass and, gloriously, concrete – to make dense, compressed, poetic spaces unlike any that had been before. “I wanted to make concrete more beautiful than the natural stones,” he says. Ando’s quilted concrete, with its undulating tatami modules, ripples like muscle beneath a skin tattooed with bolt holes. Skin you want to touch, a surface unique in world architecture, that comes alive in the light, made sleek with all the narcissistic perfection of a professional bodybuilder.
“Some people presumed that because I was a boxer, I was punching people on site so they would make it as beautiful as possible,” he says. “It wasn’t true.” He did, however, force clients to employ students to maintain the concrete surfaces every five years by brushing them gently with toothbrushes. “Because we worked hard to build it, the people living there must also work hard,” he says.
Ando might not have punched the builders, but his early works were forged in the furnace of the boxing ring. Beautiful as a haiku, this is architecture as a martial art – the claustrophobic enclosure, the almost terrifying austerity, the intense mental discipline.
What emerged was an architecture of silence that “exists to be seen and experienced and not to be talked about,” he says. This is why Peter Zumthor – whose cave-within-a-tower Bruder Klaus chapel, recently opened at Mechernich near Cologne, is the true successor to Ando’s early work – was so deeply affected after visiting Ando’s Church of the Light ten years ago that he shaved off his beard. It is also why Bono and McKillen made a similar pilgrimage with Gavin Friday and Guggi last year. “When Bono sang Amazing Grace, out of the blue, he returned the emotion he felt in that place,” says Ando. “Everybody had tears in their eyes. I want to create architecture that moves people and continues to live on in their minds after they have left the building.”
Which makes it all the more sad that Ando’s current work is no longer radical or genuinely transformative. In Dublin he launched the international leg of his latest campaign, Umi-no-Mori or Forest on the Sea, which aims to recruit millions of subscribers worldwide to transform a 100-hectare mountain of rubbish in Tokyo Bay into a green island of trees as part of Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.
“Join in to save planet Earth,” he said to his audience. As an exercise in consciousness-raising in an effort to reduce global warming, Ando’s campaign may be worse than useless. The mountain of rubbish will still be there, only beautified.
Out of sight, out of mind, as it were.
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