Hubert Burda Media

The Autodidact Architect

Tadao Ando says he has crazy clients. But he’s happy to work with them as long as they are passionate about his craft.

There is a nervous energy in the room. Apart from the nine journalists seated in the living room of the Capella Singapore service apartment, the room is crowded with publicists and hotel staff.
It seems the impending arrival of Tadao Ando, one of the world’s greatest living architects, is stressing everyone out. The talk is he has a “short fuse” and if things aren’t kept moving along at a clipped pace, then, well, let’s not even go there.
So when the door opens at five minutes to two, there is a spike in the activity level throughout the room as Ando gets ushered in, a seat pulled out for him, and the offer of a drink is made. Dressed in a tailored jacket and pants, he sports his signature front-combed bowl-shaped haircut and…a cheerful grin on his face.
In fact, there is no hint of a grumpy or impatient old man in the 71-year-old’s demeanour. Instead, he sits at the dining table and proceeds to autograph his name cards, before personally coming over to hand one to each of us. Almost immediately, the tension in the room dissipates as the group settles down to start the interview.
On the coffee table before him is a recently-published 660-page hardcover tome by Taschen of his complete works between 1975 and 2012. Ando looks at it with glee and drags the massive book onto his lap. “I build houses and buildings for crazy people,” he says through a translator. “One of them is in the middle of the desert in Arizona, with no water and electricity, where access is only by helicopter.”
As he flips the pages, he rattles off a laundry list of clients so prominent it knocks your socks off: Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani, the Benetton family, the Pulitzer family, and Capella Hotels and Resorts, just to name a few. “My clients are extraordinary and I design interesting and strange buildings for them.”
Ando is making a pit stop in Singapore en route to Jakarta where he is going to discuss, among other things, designing an art museum and hotels for GHM and Aman Resorts. While here, he is taking the chance to catch-up with the media and to deliver a free lecture at NUS.
“Wherever I go, I try to have a dialogue with students in the city. It’s something I do whether I am in the US, Korea, China, Taiwan, Italy… I do it because I think young people are shouldering the responsibility of the next generation,” he explains.
Those who have heard him speak should consider themselves lucky. After all, his reputation as one of the world’s greatest living architects is not just recognised by this magazine. Ando is the only one who has won the four most prestigious awards in his industry: The Pritzker, Carlsberg, Praemium Imperiale and Kyoto Prize — all this despite him being self-taught (yes, he never actually went to design school).
Born in Osaka, Japan, his previous incarnates included truck driver and boxer. It was only after travelling around Europe and finding himself entranced by the architecture of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn that he decided to start his own design studio at the tender age of 27.
There’s been no turning back since. After 45 years on the job, his portfolio is countless, spanning Asia, Europe and the US. Noticeable in his style is the influence of Japanese tradition, while at the same time advocating modernism.
Common across his projects is the use of concrete sculpted in geometric forms, often time to mimic the natural form of the landscape. While seemingly uncomplicated on the outside with clean lines and facades free from embellishment, it is the interiors that he goes to town with, often creating complex circulation paths that introduce the outdoors effortlessly.
Even as the last brick is laid on a building, Ando does not regard it as completed. Instead, he feels that as an architect, he needs to “take care” and “nurture” it. “For many of my completed projects, such as Rokko Housing and Naoshima, I continue maintenance work and take the initiative to plant trees and greenery around the architecture to harmonise it with its surrounding nature,” he lets on.
This fondness that he harbours for the environment is something that is constantly uppermost on his mind: “When I was in school, I learnt that the world’s population was three billion. Now, it is seven billion and is expected to grow to nine billion. To ensure humans survive, we must build sustainable architecture.”
He reveals that Shanghai is slated to have five opera houses, two of which are being designed by him: “I ask people, with so many venues, will there be enough opera singers? They say they’re not thinking about it. But all these projects need energy. We are going to run out of resources soon. We must think about what to do.”
Forty years ago when he first started out in architecture, Ando had already advocated using energy conservatively in his field. “But people laughed at me,” he says. Undeterred, he stuck to his guns and is almost religious in his use of wind and sunlight to design spaces.
For instance, he planned it so that the Shibuya station in Tokyo uses the wind generated from the trains to cool the often over-crowded station. With the recently renovated Punta della Dogana in Venice, he chose to keep the structure of the museum but completely refit the interiors. “Save energy,” he emphasises.
Looking at his illustrious career, it is no surprise Ando doesn’t think there is anything he would do differently. He attributes it to his penchant for looking towards the future: “Past is past. No matter what, it cannot be redone and if you look back to your past, you delay or lose track of the future. For example, receiving an award is nice. However, it is an evaluation on the past, and if you get caught up in it you cannot move forward.”
And after countless museums, homes, theatres and even a clinic, is there anything that Ando wishes he has designed but hasn’t? “No” is his simple answer. “I believe it is not about the budget, site or location of the project. It is about the passion towards architecture from the clients. All of mine from the past and present have been very enthusiastic about the project and architecture. As long as I have such clients, I have everything I want as an architect.”