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Biography of Tadao Ando

Name: Tadao Ando
Bith Date: September 13, 1941
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Osaka, Japan
Nationality: Japanese
Gender: Male
Occupations: architect
Tadao Ando

Tadao Ando (born 1941) is one of the most renowned contemporary Japanese architects. His designs are often compared to those of Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier and obviously take some inspiration from their work. Characteristics of his work include large expanses of unadorned walls combined with wooden or slate floors and large windows. Active natural elements, like sun, rain, and wind are a distinctive inclusion to his contemporary style.

Tadao Ando was born a few minutes before his twin brother in Osaka, Japan, in 1941. When he reached the age of two, his family decided that he would be raised by his grandmother while his brother would remain with their parents. Ando's childhood neighborhood contained the workshops of many artisans, including a woodworking shop where he learned the techniques of that craft. As an adult, his earliest design attempts were of small wooden houses and furniture.

Ando told Watanabe Hiroshi, in a 1993 article for Japan Quarterly, that his grandmother "wasn't very strict with regard to school.... But she was strict about me keeping my word." He was a mediocre student, so rather than pursuing an education, Ando followed in the footsteps of his brother to become a professional boxer at the age of 17. A series of boxing matches soon took him to Bangkok, Thailand. While there, he visited Buddhist temples in his spare time and became fascinated by their design. He then spent several years traveling in Japan, Europe, and the United States, observing building design.

Ando abandoned his boxing career to apprentice himself to a carpenter and might have started a career as a builder instead of an architect except that he kept encouraging his clients to accept his unconventional design ideas. He had no formal architectural training. Using a list of the books architecture students were assigned to read in four years, he trained himself within one year. He did not apprentice to another architect because every time he tried, he has explained in interviews, he was fired for "stubbornness and temper."

Ando further demonstrated his independence by refusing to establish an office in Tokyo, which is generally thought to be essential for architectural success in Japan. He opened his practice, in 1969, at the age of 28, in his native Osaka. His firm, which is managed by his wife, Yumikio Ando, is still based in Osaka. Consequently, the great majority of his buildings are in or around Osaka, including several projects in nearby Kobe.

Ando first achieved recognition with the Azuma House which received the Architectural Institute of Japan's annual award in 1979. Completed in 1976, and also known as the Rowhouse in Sumiyoshi, this small house in a working-class section of Osaka introduced all the elements of his later work: smooth concrete walls, large expanses of glass, uncluttered interiors, and an emphasis on bringing nature into contact with the residents. Only two stories high and just over three meters wide, its windowless front wall is made entirely of reinforced concrete with a single recessed area that shelters the entrance. The home is composed of three cubic components. The first cube contains the living room on the ground floor, and the master bedroom above. The third segment contains the kitchen, dining area, and bathroom on the lower floor, and the children's bedroom on the upper floor. The second section, between the other two, is a central courtyard.

The courtyard that lies between the two bedrooms is walled but completely open to the sky above. A bridge spans the courtyard and joins with a side staircase that descends to the courtyard. With the exception of the kitchen/dining/bath grouping, one must go outside to pass between rooms even during the winter and rainy seasons. Ando believes the inconvenience and discomfort are not without recompense. His buildings force an awareness onto their inhabitants of their place in the world. Moreover, the introspective design of the home insulates its occupants from the sound and sights of the city and offers a tranquil space which is still open to the sun, wind, and clouds.

One of Ando's larger well-known housing projects is his Rokko Housing Complex. The complex, which was built in three stages on the sixty degree slope of the Rokko mountains, contains open public spaces and insular private apartments. Each apartment features a terrace with a spectacular view of the port of Kobe and the Bay of Osaka. Ando's Church on the Water, in Hokkaido, is a Christian church which features an artificial lake which comes to the very edge of the building. The cubic concrete chapel has one entirely glass wall that slides completely away in good weather. The pews in the chapel face the lake and overlook a large steel cross standing in the middle of the water. Church of Light, in Osaka, which is recognized as another masterful work, is a rectangular concrete box, intersected at a 15 degree angle by a freestanding wall which defines the entrance. Behind the altar, a clear glass cross-shaped opening in the concrete wall floods the interior with light. Water Temple, in Hyogo, is a Buddhist temple built under a lotus pond. The entrance to the temple is a stairwell which bisects the pond and leads to the temple below.

Ando's four-story Japan Pavilion was considered the most impressive work of architecture at Expo '92 in Seville, Spain. One of the largest wooden buildings in the world, the pavilion measures 60 meters wide, 40 meters deep, and 25 meters high at its tallest point. Unpainted wood, one of the most traditional construction materials in Japan, was juxtaposed with such modern elements as a translucent Teflon-coated screen roof. Though conceptually different from his concrete and glass constructions, the pavilion still exhibits his style by not having front openings save a single breezeway that allows the sun and wind free passage between the two wings. The focus remains internally oriented with an emphasis on tangible natural participation within the defined space.

Ando has lectured widely and has taught architecture at such American universities as Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. According to Herbert Muschamp in an interview for the New York Times in 1995, Ando considers Japan "boring. He prefers the United States because Americans are encouraged to have their own dreams and to pursue them. In Japan, he says, people do not let themselves dream." His building debut in the United States was the design of a gallery for the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the 1992 addition to house their collection of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art. More recently, he won the 1997 commission to design the new building for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts of St. Louis, Missouri.


Ando's use of concrete draws on work by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, with whom he is often compared. Ando adds a mastery of nature, light, and space which become as important and tangible as the walls. In an interview with Philip Jodidio, for the book, Tadao Ando, Ando says, "I am interested in a dialogue with the architecture of the past but it must be filtered through my own vision and my own experience. I am indebted to Le Corbusier or to Mies van der Rohe, but in the same way, I take what they did and interpret it in my own fashion." His fashion includes a very high quality concrete with a flawlessly lustrous finish achieved by casting in watertight formwork. Generally there is little or no ornamentation on his walls except for precise and ever-changing washes of sunlight and shadow which constantly emphasize the passage of time. Many of his homes and public buildings utilize large amounts of natural light and often contain open courtyards. These walled havens give his buildings an internal orientation which effectively closes out urban chaos. The open-aired isolation enables the inhabitants of his buildings the opportunity to reflect and observe their relationship to natural rhythms.

Ando is also known for his fusion of Eastern and Western architecture. He designs buildings that seem universal in their balance of introspection and assertiveness. His massive concrete walls define carefully assembled geometric compositions of squares, circles, and angles in endlessly fresh and unpredictable patterns. He is often touted for simple serene buildings that are reminiscent of ancient Zen gardens but which have been realized in the vernacular of modern architecture. They are traditionally Japanese in their air of reserve, but they are fully committed to modernity.

Ando's inclusion of nature in his designs has been described as domesticating, abstracting, or stylizing nature. His courtyards are generally paved, and vegetation is at a minimum, if there are plants at all. He prefers atmospheric elements. His buildings incorporate light, wind, temperature, and precipitation to make the inhabitants conscious of their interaction with the space. This introspective awareness is offered as an antidote to the uniformity of contemporary urban life. Electric lighting and climate-controlled environments desensitize people to natural rhythms and even to their own existence as being separate from and reactive to their environment. Awareness of the cold, hard concrete helps lead to the remembrance that humans are soft and warm. Having to grab an umbrella to go to the bathroom reminds one of being part of the natural world. Seeing shadows slowly cross the wall visually tracks the passing of time.

In his wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ando constructed a grouping of freestanding columns that obscure parts of the displays as seen from the room's entrance. This leads the viewer to pay close attention to small areas of the art before the room opens up to reveal the display in its entirety. Likewise, when working with such natural settings as a view of the ocean or wooded landscapes, Ando often uses architectural elements to establish a contrasting frame. This evokes a Japanese tradition of blocking panoramic views and leaving a little opening which forces viewers to focus on a smaller area. This encourages people to see that small part of the universe more clearly.

Further Reading

  • Co, Francesco Dal, Tadao Ando, Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.
  • Contemporary Architects, 3rd ed., St. James Press, 1994.
  • Frampton, Kenneth, ed., Tadao Ando: Buildings, Projects, Writings, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1984.
  • Furuyama, Masao, Tadao Ando, 3rd ed., Birkhäuser--Verlag Für Architektur, 1996.
  • Jodidio, Philip, Tadao Ando, Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, 1997.
  • Architectural Record, September, 1992, p. 90; November, 1995, p. 74.
  • Architecture: The AIA Journal, May, 1995, p. 23.
  • Art in America, April 1, 1990, p. 220.
  • Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 1995, p. 14.
  • House Beautiful, July, 1995, p. 33.
  • Japan Quarterly, October, 1993, p. 426.
  • New York Times, April 17, 1995, p. C13; April 23, 1995, sec. 2, p. 38; September 21, 1995, p. C1; May 18, 1997, sec. 2, p. 1.
  • Wall Street Journal, July 23, 1997, p. A16.
  • Washington Post, April 17, 1995, p. C1.

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