Tadao Ando: Concrete Craftsman

Church of Light
Tadao Ando occupies a more expected place among Japanese architects – first – in all the books I’ve seen thus far. Ando’s name more than any other has been heard for the last 10 years or so in conjunction with Japanese architecture and more broadly, with concrete. He has established his reputation for repeatedly designing in plain-faced, impossibly smooth concrete, reflecting the Japanese tradition of craft1. Born in Osaka in 1941, Ando educated himself on architecture through seven years of travel through the US, Europe and Africa, looking principally at the works of Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn2. Returning to Japan in 1969, he founded his own firm in Osaka3. Ando has been consistently concerned with strong order in geometry, material authenticity, and the inclusion of nature in his projects4.
The Church on the water, Hokkaido, 1988, manifests all three concerns quite harmoniously as its substance is essentially just oversized, exposed concrete crosses arranged in a box with a focus, naturally, outdoors5. The view from the chapel out onto the lake with a cross rising up from the water is what sells everyone, I believe. Ando’s later Church of the Light, in Osaka, 1989, has another oft-published image of four concrete panels meeting to form a cruciform of pure light and so generate reverence6.
The Naoshima Museum and Hotel, built 1990-95 in two phases, manifests again Ando’s vision of beautiful, pared down concrete forms. Much of the museum being underground, we are lured into acceptance by views of the grassy hills and the sea beyond. Ando’s work seems more to achieve absence rather than build presence7.
Another museum approaching the sublime is the Museum of Wood in the Hyogo Prefecture, 19948. A truncated cone in form and located in a remote forest, the museum seems almost a temple to the forest. Again Ando’s preoccupations arise: pure geometry, honest materiality, and opening to nature9. The blue of the sky plays so much a part of Ando’s works that the architecture almost seems surreal without it. Indeed, visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering10.
I prefer Ando’s smaller works, including the meditation space for UNESCO in 1994 and the 4X4 houses in Kobe, 2004, to his larger works, which seem to lose impact in the largeness of their blankness11. Regarding Ando’s offerings on Omotesando Avenue, I am repelled by HHSTYLE and somewhat neutral to Omotesando Hills, the new massive mixed use center12. It’s a building, yes, but is that really what Ando does best?

Omotesando Hill3

1. Dirk Meyhofer, Contemporary Japanese Architects, (Benedikt Taschen Verlag: 1996), 67.
2. Ibid., 46.
3. Ibid., 67.
4. Ibid., 46.
5. Ibid., 48.
6. “Church of the Light”, Wikipedia.com: the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Light. 4/16/07.
7. Jodidio, Philip, Contemporary Japanese Architects, Vol 2, (Hamburg: Taschen), 1997, 76.
8. Ibid., 74.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Jodidio, Philip. JP: Architecture in Japan, (Koln: Taschen), 2006, 28.
12. Ibid., 34.


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