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The Japanese Architect Who Designs With Light and Shadow

By Renée Batchelor

 
Photograph by Takay
 

The Church of the Light in Osaka is a small building consisting of a single rectangular volume pierced by a diagonal wall. As you enter the main chapel, you immediately notice a cross, illuminated through the sunlight that pierces through slits in the concrete. But its spartan interior also causes a sense of disquiet for many who step inside — a point deliberately made by its architect Tadao Ando, who wanted worshippers to fill the blankness of the space with their own spiritual thoughts. It is this philosophy that has influenced a lot of Ando’s works, many of which function almost as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which to project one’s own thoughts and emotions.

As a child, Ando, who grew up in downtown Osaka, was strong-willed and energetic. “I could keep myself awake for three days straight,” he recalls. “I wasn’t good at studying, but I was serious about playing. After school, I was always uninhibited and free. I would run around the riverside and play by the river. Whether it was fishing or catching dragonflies, I learned how to live while being in nature and playing around nature. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I learned everything important about life from playing.” 

The young Ando started life as a boxer. While he admits the two don’t have direct connections, looking back he has found some parallels. “Architecture and boxing have two points in common; one is that the serious tension will always be present and two, you need physical and mental fitness for that. I think the experience from boxing, which pushes both the mental and physical limits, has been helpful in the world of architecture,” he says.

He first developed an interest in architecture aged 14, when he met a math teacher and a young carpenter who were remodelling his home. “Knowing these two people with different professions, I became interested in the world of architecture. When you consider the thinking behind mathematics and building a building, you can do both of that in architecture, and that’s when I started having a vague attraction to architecture,” he says.

The Church of the Light in Osaka is perhaps Ando’s most famous example of the use of light and dark in his architecture. He says, “In that darkness, people [look at] the light as a signpost, and pray and unite their hearts.”
The Church of the Light in Osaka is perhaps Ando’s most famous example of the use of light and dark in his architecture. He says, “In that darkness, people [look at] the light as a signpost, and pray and unite their hearts.”

Unlike many modern day architects, Ando famously skipped traditional architectural school. He was aware of the architectural route in high school, and wanted to enrol into the university course, but a combination of what he describes as “financial constraints at home and my lacklustre academic abilities” meant he had to give up this route. “In the end, I did not get professional education in architecture and I didn’t go to college,” he says. “I was self-taught and learned a lot while I was working. That required a substantial amount of determination.” 

Unlike pioneers of modernist architecture like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who both self-studied at the turn of the century, Ando was a part of Japanese society, which places a high value on formal education and training. 

“Fortunately, architecture has models everywhere in society,” says Ando. He took advantage of living in the Kansai region growing up and frequently visited the Todaiji and Toshodaiji temples, where he spent time observing and immersing himself in the space. “I learned the Japanese aesthetic and the essence of architecture this way. On Saturdays and Sundays, I walked around and look at architecture. While sketching, I reflected on the ideas and intentions of the creator and thought deeply about the future or architecture. By repeating these ruminations over and over again, I would come to find the world of architecture interesting,” he says. This Zen-like approach to architecture would continue not just in his study, but in his practice and architectural philosophy.

Still, it was not just Japanese aesthetics that influenced Ando. “My most influential architect was Le Corbusier. Soon after I decided to embark on the road to becoming an architect, I found Le Corbusier’s collection of works at a long-established bookstore in Dotonbori, Osaka. It was too expensive to buy, but every time I went to that bookstore, I would shift the books away so other customers would not buy it,” he says.

Ando at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, where a giant green apple sits on the seaside deck of the museum. He was inspired by the Samuel Ullman poem “Youth.”
Ando at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, where a giant green apple sits on the seaside deck of the museum. He was inspired by the Samuel Ullman poem “Youth.”

When Ando had saved enough to finally buy these books, he began copying the drawings and tracing over them almost obsessively until they were committed to his memory. “[Then] I wanted to see the real thing. This desire became stronger over time, which later led me to travel overseas alone,” he says. 

In 1965, Ando finally travelled to Europe. When he visited the Notre-Dame du Haut (also known as the Ronchamp chapel) by Le Corbusier he was shocked by the sheer number of people who had gathered. “Looking at that scene, I realised once again that architecture is a place where people can gather and feel alive together. I still can remember the feeling today. Once inside, light flooded in from all angles through big and small windows. This sight would be deeply engraved into the hearts of visitors. The intention of the space and place is clear, [and it] left a vivid impression that I had never had before, and it greatly influenced my attitude toward architecture,” he says. Visiting the Pantheon in Rome on the same trip gave him deeper insight into the “power” of architecture that he had not experienced in Japanese culture. Eventually Ando sailed back to Osaka and his years of study, including night classes and correspondence courses, led to him attaining his architectural license, and eventually opening his own firm.

It is perhaps the melding of the two: large, awe-inspiring structures and Japanese tradition and discipline that has helped Ando, a Pritzker prize-winner, build his own signature. He learned a lot about traditional Japanese architecture from his study of these buildings in his home country, and while he says he did not take anything directly from its form or style, he was deeply influenced by the history, tradition, and spirituality. “I am particularly interested in the Zen philosophy and the concept of nothingness, I think that is reflected in the architecture I have created thus far,” says Ando. Asked about the one thing you will see in his architecture and he succinctly says, “I always try to create ‘something that can only exist there’.”

Ando’s philosophy on architecture is all about the relationship and tension between the space and the building. “Architecture occupies a certain space. This seems obvious, but I think we have to consider the implications,” he says. “The spatial logic of architecture always clashes with the logic of the place that the architecture occupies. I believe that such collisions will create a new world.”

When he takes on a project, he starts off by looking at the site and reading the characteristics of the land, and feeling the natural conditions, such as the light and wind, on his body — thinking of a plan through the study of these elements. “I can’t do anything as dextrous as examining it from the virtual space of a computer. I always go to work in person, so I need to maintain not only my physical strength, but also my mental strength,” he says.

I think light and shadow are the roots of human life. At the same time, architectural spaces should be in some ways connected to nature. I hope that we can create a system where we can feel light, water and wind in the architectural space.

While he declines to name a favourite project or one that has special meaning, he says the Row House in Sumiyoshi (completed in 1976) gave him his biggest opportunity. The house was renovated from a Nagaya (a traditional Japanese collective of housing). “It is small with a frontage of 3.3m and a depth of 14.1m. The plane is divided into three parts and the courtyard is set up in the centre. I thought I could create a single universe in a narrow space by having no windows on the exterior and allowing all the light and wind from the outside to enter through the courtyard. But at the same time, the residents must pass through this courtyard in their daily lives. This is completely contrary to the trend of modern housing, which pursues convenience as a major premise, and received various criticisms at that time,” says Ando. 

However the architect had no doubt that the courtyard would become the heart of the house — making the inhabitants feel the changes of the four seasons and giving them the experience of life. “From the outside, the expression of Sumiyoshi’s Nagaya is reticent but it seems to represent my feelings at that time, always trying to keep my own will while fighting anxiety. Even now, every time I see it, I am made to return to the initial intention,” says Ando.

Tadao Ando photographed at one of his works, the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe.
Tadao Ando photographed at one of his works, the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe.

Seeing that Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel, as well as the gathering crowd, was an early inspiration for Ando, one wonders if the same parallels can be drawn to his Church of the Light, arguably his most famous work, which draws thousands of visitors a year. “Personally, when I think about architecture, the most fundamental thing I think about is the light and the shadows that become its symmetry. I believe if we can manipulate these elements well, we can create an attractive space. I think light and shadow are the roots of human life. At the same time, architectural spaces should be in some ways connected to nature. I hope that we can create a system where we can feel light, water and wind in the architectural space,” says Ando. His aim in doing so is to create “architecture that becomes the foundation of people’s souls.” 

Asked to describe the intention behind the Church of the Light Ando says, “In the Church of the Light, a cross is pierced through a simple box of raw concrete, with the intention of creating a space that changes expressions with the passage of time. It is a space of deep darkness, where a cross of light shines and projects on the black floor while changing its shape. In that darkness, people [look at] the light as a signpost, and pray and unite their hearts. I create a space for those seeking the light to gather… to rely on the light to interact with one another. It is a space that is powerful in some way, and ephemeral in another.”

His philosophy of creating “architecture that can only be found here” — with an emphasis on the climate and location — has led to overseas works like the House in Monterrey. “Just as Japanese architectural culture has a philosophy not found in the West, Mexico also has a cultural soil peculiar to that country. To learn about its climate and locality, I visited the works of Mexico’s leading architects, such as Luis Barragán and Félix Candela. From each wonderful work that pursues and challenges the possibilities of architecture to the limits, I could feel the strong feelings and sensibilities of the Mexicans for their architecture,” he says. 

When asked about his affinity for concrete, Ando emphasises that architecture is not about the materials first. “First of all, the space should be stopped, the materials are appropriately selected to achieve it. For me, concrete was the most familiar material for spatial expression. For that reason, I thoroughly studied this material. I went around the world and trained in various spaces. Even now, I am always trying to create new expressions with materials that are representative of the 20th century, such as concrete, iron and glass,” he says.

To Ando, architecture is about three main points: limited materials, pure geometry, and abstract nature. For a long time, he has wanted to create architecture “in a way that is made accessible for anyone… in a way that has never been done by anyone before.” 

He also feels that the passage of time is very significant for architecture, particularly in housing. “Lately, I have thought life as part of nature is the essence of living. Living is an extreme thing. [A house] should grow old with the family and eventually decay. However, due to technological advances, residences now are weather-resistant and do not decay. This is good from the viewpoints of economic efficiency and environmental impact, but it is one of the factors that distance residents from their home,” he says.

Ultimately for Ando, architecture is a medium by which we can live our life and commune with nature. “I think the ‘ideal home’ is a house that grows together with its inhabitants and the growth goes deeper each year. If the architecture does not get old — for example the gates and fences — I think it is better to use materials that change with time, and if you have a garden, be sure to plant trees. If there is a component that progresses one step at a time with a family being there, the place will surely become the heart of the family. The family will stay together, encourage dialogue, and create bonds. I would like to build such a house,” he says. 

Tadao Ando on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue.
Tadao Ando on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue.
Photographs by Takay
Co-ordinator: Akio Nagasawa
Photo assistant: Keiichi Shirakawa
Translation by Sng Ler Jun