He’s self-taught, he’s constantly darting up and down the stairs of his five-storey office, and he has a twin brother. These are just three lesser-known facts about architecture icon Tadao Ando, who at age 73 says he still aspires to create a ‘masterpiece’.
‘I grew up in Osaka, in a district filled with family-run workshops and craftsmen. My after-school hours were spent with woodcarvers, glass-blowers and metalworkers, who took care of me and taught me their skills.’
‘My grandmother raised me single-handedly. After my work had been featured in an architecture magazine, she passed away peacefully. She approached everything pragmatically. One of her theories was that it doesn’t make sense to cart textbooks to and from school, so she ordered me to finish every assignment before leaving school each day, which meant I had no homework. People thought the idea was bizarre, but in the end I found it practical. She taught me that it’s okay to be adamant about your beliefs as long as you find logic in them. This is something I’ve been exercising throughout my career.’
‘At age 14, a seemingly small event made a decisive impact on my life. My house was being rebuilt, and I saw a young carpenter working so incessantly that he even forgot to eat. I was struck by his attitude and commitment to the job; he ignited my interest in the world of architecture.’
‘I wanted to study academically and train professionally, but I had to earn a living after school to support my grandmother. In addition, my school grades weren’t quite high enough to study architecture at university. I begged my university-going friends for their architecture textbooks, which I read from cover to cover, cramming all the information students typically learn within four years into one. I also took a course in drawing via distance education.’
‘What was most challenging is that I was studying alone. I had no classmates with which to engage in heated discussions, no one to confirm that I’d understood things correctly and was headed in the right direction. I couldn’t help but feel insecure every day.’
‘Thanks to a couple of eccentric characters who showed an interest in someone with no academic training, I designed a nightclub interior at the age of 18. Since then, my practice has evolved through trial and error.’
‘I tell architecture students to travel while they’re young – to experience historical architecture first hand. To me, the essence of architecture is the creation of a space in which people gather. I’ve felt it during my countless travels in Japan and overseas. It can be discovered in the architecture of my famous predecessors, as well as in indigenous houses made by locals.’
‘Early in my career, I realized that things hardly ever work out as intended. One of my first projects was a house for a couple with one child. As the house neared completion, the couple discovered they were expecting twins. My original plan was too small for a family of five. The couple joked that because I’m a twin [Ando has a twin brother], I brought them the same fate. In the end, I decided to keep the house as an office, and I still work there today.’
‘Having experienced my own architecture as a user, I understand that architects are invariably responsible for what they create. As my studio took on more work, I had to make my office bigger; it’s now five storeys high. I have no problem with the number of levels, but people arriving for meetings have to climb the stairs all the way to the fourth floor, as there’s no lift. I’ve realized it’s difficult to make architecture that serves everyone’s needs.’
‘Sometimes I underestimate how my buildings may be used in the future. My design of the Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum, which houses books by eminent Japanese author Ryotaro Shiba, incorporates an 11-m-high bookcase. Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold some 20,000 books that informed Shiba’s writings. While the gesture is striking, the labour required to stack the shelves and clean the bookcase is something I should have considered earlier.’
‘Regrettably, close consideration of the user is something I often neglect and only engage in after the fact. That’s why I have all these models in my office. They’re not of my projects; they’re models of masterpieces designed by other architects, such as Louis Kahn, Norman Foster, Richard Meier and Arata Isozaki. I participate in many architecture competitions and often fail. But later I reflect on what was wrong with my plan, and why another architect’s plan won. Being surrounded by models of famous buildings helps me to reflect. What keeps me going as an architect is the aspiration to make something close to – and perhaps that even transcends – these masterpieces.’
This interview was first published in St-W #101 - Nov/Dec 2014.
Portraits Hideaki Hamada