Top Award to Japanese Architect

Self-taught master Tadao Ando wins the 1995 Pritzker Prize

A SELF-TAUGHT architect has won his profession's highest honor: the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

It was announced today that Tadao Ando of Osaka, Japan, has been chosen this year's winner and will be honored at a ceremony May 22 at the Grand Trianon Palace at Versailles in France. His award carries $100,000 in prize money.

Of the previous 17 winners, Mr. Ando is unusual for two reasons -- the nature of his education, and the fact that at 53 he is receiving a lifetime achievement award.

Ando, whose work was featured in the Feb. 18, 1994, issue of the Monitor, is perhaps best known internationally for his Japanese Pavilion, built almost entirely of wood, for Expo '92 in Seville, Spain. His other famous buildings include the Church of Light, the Church on the Water for Christian worshipers, and the unique Buddhist Water Temple, which is entered through a staircase piercing a lotus pond. He has also designed commercial buildings, houses, museums, and libraries.

Ando came by his architectural knowledge by observation and practice. As Jay Pritzker, head of the Hyatt Foundation that founded the award, puts it, ''Ando has no architectural degree or even training with a master architect.''

''I did not apprentice to another architect,'' Ando explained in an interview, ''because every time I tried, I was fired for my stubbornness and temper.''

That he is skilled in his profession is evident: none of his structures located in Kobe and in the area close to the fault zone were damaged in the devastating earthquake that rocked Japan on Jan. 17.

''We have over 30 buildings, including the Water Temple, in the center of the fault zone, which survived and stood firmly,'' Ando explained through his translator, his wife, Yumiko Ando, who manages his office in Osaka.

Ando has built a reputation on imaginative use of reinforced concrete. In the citation from the Pritzker jury, it states, ''At an age when most architects are beginning to do their first serious works, Ando has accomplished an extraordinary body of work, primarily in his native Japan, that already set him apart.''

Ando admits he has a preference for concrete, although it is not part of the Japanese tradition. ''Most Japanese houses are built with wood and paper,'' he explains, ''including my own. I have lived there since I was a child. I call it my cave, for I am very comfortable there.''

Ando was born a few minutes before his twin brother. When he reached the age of 2, it was decided that he would be raised by his grandmother. ''We first lived near the port of Osaka, then we moved a few miles away to where I live today.''

Across the street from this house was a woodworking shop. ''As a child, I spent many hours learning how to make shapes from wood. I discovered how trees grow and how the sun changes the quality of the lumber produced. As an adult, my first attempts at designs were of small wooden houses, some interiors, and furniture.''

In 1973, Ando completed one of his first commissions, a small row house in Osaka. ''This small house, Azuma, was the point of origin for my subsequent work,'' he says. ''It is a memorable building for me, one of which I am very fond. This house replaced the middle portion of three row houses in an older section of central Osaka.

''My intention was to insert a concrete box in this center section and to create a microcosm within it, a simple composition with diverse spaces and dramatized by light. The house completely closes itself from the street. An indentation on the front wall serves as an entry. A courtyard in the center of the space is flanked by the rooms.''

This house received the top prize of the Architectural Institute of Japan. Today, as a recipient of most of the top architectural honors, he continues to build residences with a sense of sanctuary.

In his office in Osaka, with his ever-present dog, named Le Corbusier, at his side, he recalls as a young man discovering a book about Le Corbusier, one of the most influential geniuses of modern architecture.

''It took me several weeks to save the money to buy the book, but once I had it, I traced the drawings of his early periods so many times that all the pages turned black.''

He recalls going to Marseilles, France, and visiting Corbu's Unite d'Habitation and being excited by the dynamic use of concrete. Concrete, steel, and glass are still Ando's favorite materials.

When he was 17, he visited the original Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and eventually demolished to make way for taller buildings. Later, Ando came to the United States and studied Wright and other architectural giants' works. His self-taught odyssey took him everywhere with a sketch pad under his arm. Today, he still has a sketch pad, which he constantly uses.

Ando is also noted for his use of underground space. Half of Koshino House, built in Hyogo, Japan, is underground. Light comes in through narrow slits in walls and ceilings, in addition to large windows in the living room facing the outdoor court.

Critics agree that one of his masterpieces is the Church of the Light in Osaka. It is a concrete box with glazed slits piercing and intersecting the wall behind the altar, allowing sunlight to form a bright cross in the otherwise darkened interior. Ando says, ''By placing a cross in a body of flowing water, I wanted to express the idea of God as existing in one's heart and mind. I also wanted to create a space where one can sit and meditate.''

Later, he adds, ''I do not believe architecture should speak too much. It should remain silent and let nature in the guise of sunlight and wind speak.''

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