Living Legend - Tadao Ando

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Living Legend - Tadao Ando Photo by Keitaku Hayashi

Tadao Ando

Self-Taught Architect

Tadao Ando, born in 1941, is a former boxer who became one of Japan’s most renowned architects. His projects, which can be found in Japan, the U.S., the U.K., Spain, Germany, France, and Italy, are known for having large expanses of unadorned architectural concrete walls combined with large windows and wooden or stone floors. He has received such awards as the Pritzker Prize, Gold Medal of Architecture from the French Academy of Architecture, Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects and Gold Medal of the Union Internationale des Architects. He is a visiting professor at Harvard University, Yale University, Columbia University, and University of California, Berkeley.

TJ: As I understand it, you are self-taught. You took distance-learning courses. Do you think architecture can be taught effectively today with online technology?
ANDO: I do not recommend that people follow the path I have taken. It was very difficult as a young man to become an architect without a degree. The world in front of me looked dark. But I never stopped and I moved forward in chasing the dream and my goal. Back then I did not have people around me to talk with about architecture like classmates in school. However, one good thing came out from this. Since I did not have people around me talking about architecture I was not infused by others’ opinions, comments and ideas. I believe that situation enabled me to create my own ideas and concepts towards architecture. I believe computer technologies are good tools, which show people how to learn. But to learn I truly believe one has to do it on their own with their own physical body because at the end of the day architecture is something that exists in the real world, not in the virtual world. When I was young I traced over and over architectural publications until sense of scale became part of my body. In my early 20s I traveled around Japan every month and around the world for eight months to see the architecture and feel the space. Learning is a process throughout your entire life, so I am still learning every day on my own, from others, from technology, etc.

TJ: Can you tell us how you got started in your career?
ANDO: I started my office when I was 28 years old. Early in my career it was not easy for me to earn trust from people since I did not have an architectural degree from any school. I did not have any job or project offer for a long time and finally I received my first interior design project. After the first project
I received another interior design project and another after that. It went on for a while until I received my first small residential projects. That is when I realized what was most important. What helped me the most to capture projects back then and even now is passion for what I do. I believe passion is the common
language globally and it is the way one can connect with others without even speaking.

TJ: Is there someone who had a major influence on you?
ANDO: Le Corbusier had a big influence when I started learning architecture. I traced his drawings over and over after I found his book at the used bookstore
near my home. During my eight-month trip around the world I went to see a lot of his architecture. I wanted to meet him. However, he unfortunately passed away a few months before my trip.

TJ: Which architects (Japanese and foreign) have impressed you the most, and why?
ANDO: I cannot say which architect. However, I would say whoever talks to me and makes me feel and think about something through architecture.

TJ: How would you describe the difference between Japanese and Western architecture? In your designs, you take in influences from the West in a Japanese context. How do you make them relate to each other?
ANDO: To be honest, during the design process I never think about Western or Japanese sensibility and their mixture. I started learning from Western style and
architecture in my early days when I was learning architecture myself. A lot of Western style left a strong impression on me during my eight-month trip such
as masonry construction methods at cultural areas, the power of the wall which frames the space, and I started nurturing my own style in architecture.Therefore, I can say that I value Western culture while I create architecture. However, aside from such intellectual notions, the sense of scale and space are imbedded in my body from Japanese traditional architecture of the historical city which I have been in contact with since my childhood. At the same time I take vocabulary from contemporary architecture under consideration and try to create something that can only be created with the characteristics of its project site. They become the sense of scale, spatial proportion and the use of the light, and then the characteristic of each material that cannot be seen through one’s eyes starts appearing.

TJ: Are there any particular buildings that you would suggest visitors to Tokyo who are interested in architecture visit?
ANDO: Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

TJ: You are renowned for your phenomenal work with concrete. How did you attain this skill?
ANDO: People relate me with concrete, and many think it is my trademark. Perhaps, so it seems. However, the reason why I use concrete is because I believe concrete is the material which can present and frame the space as best as possible with existing materials today. I also wanted to create a space and architecture, which one has not thought of before with very common material that can be found and accessed by anyone and anywhere on earth.

TJ: Do you plan on doing more work in the U.S.?
ANDO: I currently have several projects in the U.S., from East to West and from museums to residential projects. As for the projects, yes, what I look for in a new project and most important is a passionate client. I keep the program, the budget and the site aside first and concentrate on passion and care for the
project from the client.

TJ: I understand you were once a boxer. Do you still train?
ANDO: I do go to the gym every day, and aside from the gym I try to walk 10,000 steps every day and most of the time I use the stairs and not the escalator or the elevator. The important thing I learned and the similarities between being an architect and being a professional boxer is that both require serious commitment and that no one will help you once you are in the ring or start working.

TJ: Do you think it’s important for young Japanese people to learn English?
ANDO: Yes! It is very important for anyone to be able to speak English. English is the universal language. Therefore, in order for anyone to go outside of their own country they must be able to speak English. Another major reason is that the amount of information you can accumulate with English compared with any other language is significantly different. Young generations must learn English because now with the Internet and all the technological improvements and social networking, the language barrier and border has disappeared Since I believe being able to speak English is crucial I provide English classes every Saturday morning from 7:30 a.m. until 9 a.m. before work for the young staff members in the office.

TJ: What’s your biggest regret?
ANDO: I do not have any regrets. I do not think about the past. I always look forward to the future. The past is past. It is a waste of time thinking about or regretting what already happened. For example, I have been fortunate to receive many awards during my career and I am grateful and honored for receiving them. However, the awards are evaluations of my past works. So I do not get attached or stuck with awarded awards and I put them away. So in my office none of the awards I have received are displayed.

TJ: What advice would you give to a designer or architect just starting out in their career?
ANDO: Have a decent amount of general knowledge and a deep and solid knowledge of your profession. tj

21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo   -- Photo by Mitsuo Matsuoka


The complete article is available in Issue #272. click here. to order from Amazon

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.


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