Tadao Ando is widely considered one of the greatest architects of our time, and has executed numerous major projects around the world, from religious temples to notable residences. He won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest recognition, for 1995.
Olu Oguibe: Mr. Ando, I would like us to begin with the elements: fire, water, air. What do the elements mean to you and what is their place in your architecture?
Tadao Ando: Architecture is not what is perceived by just the eyes, but what is experienced through the five senses. Therefore, they are important elements in my architecture.
How about light, color, and the intangible elements of spirit and grace? What do these mean to you and how have you employed them in your work?
Architecture is not only a substantial matter. Intangible elements such as “light” and “spirit” deepen architecture. Once buildings are built, they will have stood there for a long time and kept influencing people when their memories and spirits are formed. I think this depth is quite important for architectural creation.
How has history or tradition shaped your work and philosophy? You are a keen admirer of Japanese architectural traditions and have mentioned that one of your objectives is to counter certain tendencies that emerged in Japanese architecture in the 1950s. For example, you love childhood home and still live in it. But you are also a keen admirer of other architectural traditions. What is about these traditions that you find compelling and in what ways have you reflected this in your work?
For creating architecture, looking just a future is far from enough. We have to step forward while looking back to the history and looking over the society. That is why history and tradition has a big importance on the society. I admire Japanese architectural traditions but it does not mean that I would use its form and materials directly in my architecture. Some times I like to integrate its spirit in my architecture.
You have built temples and other public spaces. You’ve also built residential dwellings. What are the different challenges that these categories of architecture pose for you, and what is it that informs your approach? Receiving the Pritzker is an encouragement to me, but it never changed my attitude toward architecture.
Though each function is different, the difficulties you encounter in dealing with people, and the challenges of thinking about spirit, are same.
Receiving the Pritzker is an encouragement to me, but it never changed my attitude toward architecture.
What do you set out to accomplish or achieve in each case?
First, I go to see the site, talk with clients and read the social characteristics and regional conditions behind the project. My design always starts from having thorough dialog with these matters.
It has been more than a decade since you won the Pritzker Prize. When you set out as a young apprentice many years ago, traveling and studying, did you envision that someday your work would bring you recognition as one of the great masters?
Rather than imagine the future, I’ve always done my best on every single work like I would on a graduation design in school. I would like to keep this sincere attitude anytime.
And in what ways, no matter how subtle, has your work changed or evolved since the Pritzker?
Receiving the Pritzker is an encouragement to me, but it never changed my attitude toward architecture. Instead, it has brought me a kind of tension because I keep trying to create architecture that would exceed the worth of a prize.
You work principally with concrete, a material that is traditionally considered cold, distant and imposing. The Romans who popularized concrete in architecture reserved it for public and monumental projects such as bridges, aqueducts, public arenas like the Coliseum, and temples. For residential dwellings they preferred stone, brick and mud. But you’ve used concrete for both public spaces and private dwellings. How do you go about creating warm and humane enclosures with a material that is so distant and indifferent?
Concrete, steel and glass are the materials that represent the 20th century and are available all over the world. I always seek new architectural possibilities that I can create with these universal materials. My aim always, is to create warm and rich human spaces, even while using materials that are usually considered cold or poor.
Over the past decade you’ve done a number of significant collaborations around the world: with Alessandro Benetton for the Fabrica Benetton, and with artists Richard Sera and Elsworth Kelly for the Pulitzer project, for instance. Tell me about your experiences and challenges with these collaborations say, the Fabrica and the Pulitzer project.
Artists often exist completely independent from architects, as well as form the social world. In a sense, collaboration is a kind of competition. In my case, I keep communicating with people thoroughly without making compromises. Such an intensive relation between architect and artist, or with a demanding owner, generates creative architecture.
Tadao Ando, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright; none of these great masters studied architecture in school. But you’ve had a long association with universities and a long, parallel career as a teacher. When you step into the classroom to face a group of young aspirants, what do you tell them about architecture and practice?
Although I can offer the young general education, teaching someone how interesting and deep architecture is, isn’t so easy. However, I believe that my experience can tell them something important about architecture.
As a youth you traveled around studying the work of master builders and craftsmen: temples, arenas, monuments, sea vessels, as well as simple dwellings. When a young apprentice or acolyte sets out tomorrow with a sketchbook in hand to study the work of the great modern masters, what do you hope they’ll find in the work of Tadao Ando?
My works might seem alike at first sight. However, on close inspection, they can find various devices and difficulties in each work. My architecture results from an earnest quest for “what is living?” and “what is residing?” I would like the young to perceive not only superficial appearance, but my spirit and philosophy behind it, also.
Olu Oguibe is an artist and Professor of Art and Art History at University of Connecticut where he runs the Institute for African American Studies. “Oguibe has published widely on art and contemporary culture, and is the author of The Culture Game.” ]