Tadao Ando: architectural play of light and concrete

Tadao Ando's path to becoming one of the most famous architects of our time is as unusual as his works. As a young man, he aspired to become a professional boxer. However, a book on the Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, aroused the 15-year-old's interest in modern architecture. Tadao Ando didn’t end up studying either architecture or sport but rather spent seven years exploring the world. On his journeys through Europe, the USA and Africa, he visited the world's architectural masterpieces and learned from them by self-study.

A self-taught star architect: Inspired by western modernity

Back in his hometown, Ōsaka on the Japanese island of Honshu, where Tadao Ando was born in 1941, he opened his studio, Tadao Andō Architect & Associates, in 1969.

He initially worked on small private houses, in which the architectural influences of his travels became visible. Works by the American architect, Louis Kahn, and the geometric simplicity of Bauhaus characterised the clear signature of his designs. Light and shade are usually the only design elements of these buildings, which always incorporate nature into their concept. This minimalism has become Tadao Ando's trademark and even earned him the coveted Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1995. Like his great role model, Le Corbusier, Tadao Ando prefers to work with fine exposed concrete to create shelters that protect against urban chaos. He also pursued this ideal of architectural design in his first internationally renowned building.

Japanese Architect, Tadao Ando is featured in the CNN series, Talk Asia. Source: YouTube/Daniel J. Stone

Haus Azuma: Private retreat in the middle of urban bustle

The house Azuma in Ōsaka (1976) stands out from the neighbouring wooden houses because of its concrete facade. At the owner's request for peace and privacy, Tadao Ando designed the building without outside windows. Light only enters the house through a centrally enclosed courtyard that opens upwards and covers the entire area of an almost 57-square-metre plot.

Cleverly arranged building elements made of exposed concrete, glass and slate reflect the incident light and create lively shadow plays during the course of the day. Above all, the inner courtyard creates an independent, private living space that traditional terraced houses do not usually offer. Like a silent wall, the house defies the noise and bustle of daily life. Tadao Ando received his first prestigious award for this special design approach in 1979: the annual prize of the Japan Institute of Architects.

A house without outside windows and with minimalist furnishings. Source: YouTube/Liniaprosta

Church of Light: Minimalist architecture creates calm space

One of Tadao Ando's most striking works was created in the small town of Ibaraki in 1989: "Church of Light". The building shows how light can define spaces and change our perception. The building, made of steel and concrete, is free of any kind of decoration.

A large cross, which opens the immaculately smooth surface of the concrete shell on the east façade, is the only source of light in the darkness. Tadao Ando's focus on minimalist aesthetics has a particularly surreal effect here, creating an architecture of coexisting opposites: Light and dark, unity and transparency, strength and sensitivity characterise the atmosphere in this simple, meditative space.

The building shows how light can define spaces. Source: YouTube/Martin Zeme

"The Hill of the Buddha": underground stone statue rises to the sky

Tadao Ando completed another temple, which combines nature and architecture in a special way, in 2015. It is known as "The Hill of the Buddha". In the city of Sapporo in the north of Japan, he was to design a prayer hall that would stage a 15-year-old Buddha sculpture. The 13.5 metre high and 1,500 tonne statue made of solid stone stands on the open area of a cemetery.

Tadao Ando covered the sculpture below the head with a mound of earth. Through a 40-metre-long tunnel, visitors can reach the underground part of the statue, which is surrounded by a circular hall. From here, they look up involuntarily to Buddha, whose head rises through the free opening towards the sky. Planted with around 150,000 lavender plants, "The Hill of the Buddha" is a very special project.

the hill of the buddha

Conference pavilion for Vitra: Tadao Ando Architecture outside Japan

Tadao Ando's first building outside Japan was the conference pavilion on the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein. Completed in 1993, this building was placed in the middle of several cherry trees.

Because cherry trees are of great traditional importance in Japan, Ando sought to preserve as many as possible. Only three cherry trees had to be cut down in order to make room for the building. Tadao Ando integrated a traditional element from his home country with a path reminiscent of the meditation paths of Japanese monastery gardens.

Tadao Ando's first building in Europe. Source: YouTube/9 seconds

Sculpture museum in Bad Münster am Stein: concrete meets natural scenery

Tadao Ando's last building in Germany to date was not in cultural strongholds such as Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne, but in the tranquil Bad Münster am Stein. The name of this place also explains why: the almost 200-metre high and 1,200-metre long stone wall under which Bad Münster lies is a breathtaking natural backdrop for the world's first contemporary sculpture museum.

Tadao Ando's building has been conceived as a "museum in the landscape" which stages the stone sculptures of the artist couple Kubach-Wilmsen in a special way. It combines a large field barn from the 18th century with its typical minimalist concrete construction. Open-air courtyards with water basins and gravel floors create a unique setting for both the architecture and the sculptures.

In more than 50 years, Tadao Ando has carried out numerous remarkable building projects. The architecture world today would definitely have a fewer works of art if the star architect had remained a boxer.

Do you know of other buildings by Tadao Ando or do you particularly like one of the projects presented here? We look forward to hearing your opinion on the Japanese architectural icon.

Architecture Buildings Pritzker Prize

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