Tadao Ando Builds With Nature In Mind

The Japanese architect engages in a constant dialogue between the organic and the manmade in his designs

IN one of the houses by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the inhabitants must go outdoors to get to some of the rooms. It is not hard to imagine the potential for inconvenience in this, because of the vagaries of wind, rain, or snow. But for Mr. Ando, architecture is not necessarily convenient. This extreme example of his work underlines his emphasis on architecture as experience rather than architecture as functional object.

His architecture, which uses reinforced concrete as its primary material, cannot be described as comfortable. One architectural historian, Kenneth Frampton, has pointed to its ``underlying stoicism.''

Another critic, Tom Heneghan, observes: ``We must judge [Ando's] predilection for simple form and the starkness of bare concrete not merely as an aesthetic preference, but primarily as a statement of his ethical position.''

And that ethical position includes a definite challenge to the chaotic sprawl as well as the wasteful consumerism of cities. When Ando designs buildings for nonurban settings, he engages in a challenging dialogue between nature on the one hand and the uncompromising geometry and self-possession of his buildings and their immediate manmade settings on the other. Nature can mean woods, hills, fields, and lakes. Or it can mean wind, rain, and light. It can mean the sound of water. It can mean darkness. Whatever the case, Ando allows such variables into his architecture in imaginative ways that may or may not be convenient and comfortable, and that either extend or simply ignore the presumed functionality of architecture.

Indeed Ando presents a view of functionality that puts it firmly in its place. Function is no more than a basic necessity. He has described this himself: ``I like to see how far architecture can pursue function and then, after the pursuit has been made, to see how far architecture can be removed from function. The significance of architecture is found in the distance between it and function.''

This Osaka-born, self-taught architect has produced a surprising number of much-admired private and public buildings and projects since his office opened in 1969. Much of his work is in Japan and is known to many Westerners by means of exhibitions and architectural journals. An exhibition is currently traveling in Europe (see schedule below). In 1991, a catalog was published in English to coincide with the exhibition on Ando at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1993, the magazine GA Architect devoted a second volume to Ando, covering 1988-93 (earlier work was covered in another issue six years ago). The text is in both English and Japanese.

It is perhaps not surprising that an architect concerned with going beyond function alone in his work, has, among many other projects, designed places of worship. More surprisingly, two of them, both in Japan, are Christian - the Church of Light in Ibaraki, Osaka, and the Church on the Water in Tomamu, Hokkaido. A third, and remarkable, work is Buddhist - the Water Temple in Higashiura-Cho, Hyogo.

Among other striking aspects of the temple project is its roof: a large oval lotus pond. A narrow stairway descends into the midst of the pond and below it. The surface of water and plants is so integral to the architecture as to be inseparable from it. It comprises a concept, an image, and an experience that quietly and impressively epitomizes Ando's dialogue with the natural.

Nature, in the form of water and living plants, is contained within the immaculately precise framing contours and edges of the concrete architecture. It is no longer in any sense free and wild. But the architecture, reciprocally, is no longer an unnaturally artificial and purely functional building. The whole thing is lifted into an amalgam of the natural and the manmade.

An artist quite as much as an architect, Ando has not dodged the issue of modernity by either indulging wild and weird Post-Modernist fantasy and eclectic silliness, nor by reaching for some kind of cozy nostalgia. Nevertheless, he is concerned with bringing together something of tradition and something of today, as well as characteristics of both East and West - the horizontal lines of traditional Japanese architecture, for example, with the vertical of Western architecture.

In his Church on the Water, ``functionless'' columns become the Christian symbol of the cross - four, in fact, grouped in square formation inside a large glass box of concrete in the higher part of the building. People walk through this box, which is entirely for contemplation. In the lower part of the church, standing in the water of an artificial lake over which the congregation gazes, is another single cross. But this cross is now part of an outlook over water, grass, trees, and hills that involves changing light and seasons.

In the Church of Light no such outlook exists. It is squeezed into an urban setting and its architect clearly wanted to protect it from its surroundings and concentrate on its own extremely subtle simplicity. The tall dark interior is penetrated by daylight but has no view. This light percolates through narrowly defined glazing at two points where an obliquely angled wall cuts through the rectangular volume of the chapel. And - directly confronting the congregation whose seating slopes down toward it - light pierces through the darkness of the south altar wall in the form of a vertical strip from floor to ceiling and a horizontal strip from side wall to side wall: a cross of light.

The effect appears not only dramatic in its stark simplicity but also invests what might have been no more than the functional end wall of a concrete building with a meaning quite beyond structure.

* Tadao Ando's work will be shown at the Exhibition Gallery of the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Environment in Madrid, April 14 to May 22. It will also be seen at the Cultural Center of the Foundation ``La Caixa,'' in Barcelona, Spain, June 17 to July 30. The exhibition will travel to Italy and Germany but no dates have been set.

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