Built to Last

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, December 12, 2008
Tadao Ando has 40 years of genre-defining architecture under his belt, but don’t assume he’s ready to retire.

As a veteran architect in high demand, Tadao Ando knows how he likes his press meetings to run. “Give me three or four questions and I’ll answer them in a row,” he instructs through his interpreter, before delivering a series of diplomatic clichés and being whisked off to his next gig. But Ando can hardly be blamed for being perfunctory; he is just part of the way through a 24-hour publicity spree that includes a Hong Kong architecture tour, a speech at a business lunch, a series of interviews and an evening lecture at Hong Kong University to an arena of slack-jawed students. Despite the jaunty bowl cut and the kindly eyes, the 67-year-old is tired.

This schedule is a just hint of the demand Ando finds himself in after 40 years in the business. His small, 30-strong design studio has whipped up projects around the world for clients from Armani to UNESCO, and its trophy list is long and illustrious. At the pinnacle of these is the Pritzker, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel. “Ando’s architecture is an assemblage of artistically composed surprises in space and form,” noted the jury in 1995, when he was awarded the prize. “There is never a predictable moment as one moves through his buildings.”

Ando is often spoken of as having reinvented the ‘art of building’, but few would have guessed it in the 1969 when he set up his firm without college training; he’d simply ‘self trained’, he says, with an architectural study tour of the world, from the landmarks of Finland and Siberia to those of Mumbai. But wedged between the cheap post-war duplexes of Sumiyoshi, Osaka, Ando’s debut project gave a hint of things to come. It reworked Japan’s skinny, low-income row house into a stark shield of concrete, with a complex light-filled home hidden behind it.Ando later admitted that the design was a kind of retaliation for the house he and his grandmother had lived in while he was growing up. “After World War II I lived in a narrow, oblong, wooden two story row house,” he remembers in one book.  “Winters were so cold you could practically see the wind race through, and summers were stiflingly hot, admitting no breeze… I grew enraged at society and felt inspired to improve living conditions.”

Ando has continued to use architecture as a tool for social change, but his projects are also famous for their respect for materials – he likes them bare – and his high sensitivity to nature. His buildings harness the natural elements as decoration, with complex shadows giving depth to a wall, light creeping through a skylight or snow piling up against a window. His is a ‘haiku-effect’ notes professor Masao Furuyama: like the Japanese form of poetry, his work is concise, traditional and all about the changing seasons. His religious buildings, such as the Church of Light and the Church of the Water, have become iconic the world over for an almost spiritual use of the elements.

Ando is in town to help promote a new project in Japan’s snowy, northern Hokkaido. When finished in a few years Cappella Niseko will have a 70 room hot spring hotel and 149 residences, about two hours from the capital, Sapporo.  It’s only Ando’s second resort. “It was a new challenge,” he says, through friend and architect, George Kunihiro. “A totally new environment and climate, with world famous conditions of light snow powder from Siberia. I wanted to somehow incorporate this into my idea.”

The resort makes use of Ando’s favourite material, concrete, combined with glass, raw wood and stone in the shape of two intersecting rings, which open up to a 360 degree view of the mountainside. It has similarities with his first resort – an art museum and resort on Naoshima Island, which he worked on over a period of about twelve years.  Here The Oval arranges six guestrooms around an elliptical garden, each flooded with views of the landscape. If you’re going to travel somewhere, Ando seems to say, you’d better feel it to the full.

The architect also thinks that it’s an interesting time for the Japanese tourism industry, noting that the country offers the best of a developed society – including hygiene and safety from terrorism – and giving the impression that his decision to work on a resort was partly patriotic. It’s a fair notion; the architect draws hoards of design buffs to the country each year. ‘If you can’t afford an Ando-designed house,’ one fan exclaims in an online travel blog, ‘at least you can stay in this hotel.’

It is an interesting time for architecture, too. Ando agrees with the many other designers who have welcomed the economic slowdown as a chance to produce more thoughtful work. “It’s going to be harder for buildings to be put up,” he admits, “but it’s the kind of time where architects can really put energy into each project, to make it their best. Until a few months ago they were all working so quickly the quality of each building was probably not at the highest.”

He believes that architecture will be able to help. During the great depression in the 30s, says Ando, Roosevelt and other world leaders took a leaf from the book of economist John Maynard Keynes, who had pushed public projects as a way to keep a struggling economy afloat. The period saw housing projects springing up in countries like the US, Sweden and the UK, and the creation of landmark public buildings like London’s Royal Institute for British Architects. “Maybe economists will come up with some ideas like this to overcome the depression,” he says.

Still despite his achievements, Ando can’t relax; he feels Japan’s younger generation of architects barking at his heels. Unlike the many stars who tend to look down on young upstarts, Ando sees them as worthy adversaries. “When you’re at the top for a long time there’s always someone new coming up. The younger generation is in demand, and they are the one who are going to knock you out,” he explains. Though he has kept his studio small and flexible, he still tries to stay aware of design trends. Still, at 66, could he not just take it a little easier?

“[Architect] Oscar Niemeyer worked until he was 102 years old; he got married when he was 75,” the designer says with a laugh. “My clients Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld are at least ten years older and they still have powerful personalities and high energy levels. This inspires me, so I’m sure I can keep going for at least another ten years.” Perhaps next time around he’ll stay for a proper chat.