words Kieran Long
“Would you like tea or coffee?”
“Sparkling water,” answers Tadao Ando through a translator.
He sounds pretty cheerful at this point, as he arrives for a press breakfast that will soon disintegrate as ill-prepared journalists ask ridiculous questions that prompt a fit of pique from the legendary Japanese architect.
Ando was in London to give a lecture the previous night as part of the City of London festival. The tone had been genial, knockabout even, with jolly anecdotes about his dog (which he named Le Corbusier after deciding he wouldn’t be able to kick a dog named after fellow Japanese architect Kenzo Tange) and reflections on his brief career as a boxer (“There’s no direct correlation between architecture and boxing, except that you’re on your own – no one is going to help you”).
But before he leaves London, he must endure a morning with myself, a Japanese-speaking correspondent from Casa Brutus magazine and a reporter from Elle Deco in a café so noisy that the coffee grinder sounds like it’s amplified. Some Japanese words are exchanged between Ando and his translator Antoine Müller Moriya, and the first of quite a few awkward silences descends. A cheerful PR speaks up: “So, Antoine, would Mr Ando rather speak in Japanese, and then have you translate it?” “That is the only option,” he replies.
I’ve heard that Ando knows some English, but he always speaks in public through a translator. During the lecture he apologised for this, saying that his career had concentrated on architecture rather than learning languages. This single-mindedness is tangible in his career trajectory. He famously received no formal architectural education, and in 1965 took the trans-Siberian express to make a pilgrimage to Paris to meet Le Corbusier, arriving just weeks after his French hero died. Ando is now Japan’s most famous architect, winning the Pritzker Prize in 1995. His lecture described his early career in Osaka as the author of provocative schemes that the city authorities constantly turned down – memories of the rebellious youth of a 65-year-old now with emphatically establishment credentials.
The works that made him famous worldwide were probably the Church of the Light (1989), a concrete box with a cross-shaped cut behind the altar, and the Church on the Water (1988), a concrete volume completely open to the elements at one end, with a cross placed in the centre of a lake. These are the buildings that launched a thousand clichés about Ando as a poetic manipulator of concrete, glass, light and geometry.
But do we really care about him now? His super-minimalist approach feels less Zen than cold-blooded in today’s more eclectic times. Perhaps it’s now the Japan of kitsch and eclectic consumerism that charms us, rather than the temples, kimonos and meditative calm. Also, while we swooned over his perfect concrete right up to the mid-90s, that aesthetic is as familiar from the shop interiors of John Pawson and Claudio Silvestrin as from Ando’s public buildings. Indeed, his main source of work is now major corporations – including an office building for pharmaceutical giant Novartis in Basel and a building for Giorgio Armani in Milan.
His most recent completed work is the HH Style boutique in Tokyo (icon 032), a stealth bomber of a building in folded black steel, which perhaps moves towards a less ethereal and more industrial material pallette. But Tadao doesn’t want to talk about that this morning: “It’s not a big change in this area. Maybe it’s not published, or you don’t know, but he has always been exploring new directions and new ideas,” offers the translator, rather paradoxically. He also bats away the Japanese journalist’s question about possible new directions in the work. After an exchange that seemed much longer than the translation, I’m told: “She asked why the latest projects are underground, but that’s not a new direction, he has always been interested in that.”
It is well-documented that Ando feels less than at home outside Japan. But there is a certain defensiveness detectable in an architect who until recently received almost unfailing critical praise, from his benediction by architecture historian Kenneth Frampton as a Critical Regionalist onwards. Growing scepticism came to the boil in spectacular style with the completion last year of his Omotesando Hills development, a massive mixed-use complex on Omotesando-dori, one of Tokyo’s most significant and beautiful shopping streets. The building, for controversial developer Minoru Mori, demolished the characterful Dojunkai apartments and replaced them with a shopping centre, rehousing the remaining tenants in apartments on the top floors. The Dojunkai apartments, built in 1927 (although Ando likes to say they were “nearly 100 years old”) were an ivy-covered, crumbling modernist idyll. One Japanese magazine called Ando’s replacement “one of the cruellest pieces of architecture this city has seen”.
In his lecture, Ando spoke about echoing the form of the Dojunkai building, but this morning he says, disingenuously, that changes of use are out of his hands: “It’s not Tadao Ando as an architect who has decided to rebuild and make shops, it was the owners themselves who wanted it to be new housing and to get some value with shops below. His task was how to do it in the best way,” says the translator. Ando’s respect for the decisions of one of Tokyo’s more rapacious developers is surprising, and his first answer to my question about the change of use from residential to commercial is to protest that all the remaining Dojunkai tenants have been rehoused in the complex. But this is no housing project. Tokyo-based critic Julian Worrall wrote for Japanese magazine Metropolis: “The Dojunkai apartments originally housed 137 dwellings and one shop. Omotesando Hills houses 38 dwellings and 93 commercial establishments.”
Perhaps Ando’s architecture has been used as a developer’s fig-leaf, or perhaps he genuinely believes in developer-led progress, but his uncircumspect attitude is more reminiscent of the last century than of this one. Also, tastes have changed. Critics have said that the unbroken glass expanse of Omotesando Hills’ facade lacks character compared to the detailed, differentiated buildings that were there before. Where once we would have felt Zen calm in the face of Ando’s work, we now long for something that communicates a little more.
I ask Ando if he sees younger Japanese architects offering ideas as fresh as his own youthful plans for Osaka. “He thinks that the younger generation of Japanese architects have a problem – they don’t know very much about society. But from now, we must consider society more, otherwise architecture will lose its credit and its reason to be,” the translator explains. Ando is involved with charitable environmental work, including chairing the Hyogo Green Network, a charitable foundation that has planted 300,000 trees in the Hyogo prefecture in the last eight years. The Japanese journalist asks, intelligently, whether the use of vegetation is intended to soften the impressions made by his harsh material palette? “It is not to soften the concrete that he plants trees,” says the translator, curtly.
I ask what I think is a reasonable enough question about the role of teaching in communicating his views to a new generation of architects. “Before you make interview you should prepare a little better,” he huffs. “Your questions are so basic if he has to start from scratch each time the interview will not be at a very good level.” Ando’s gravelly laugh at this point faintly reminds me of a villain from a Bruce Lee movie. I begin to think of an exit strategy.
But if Ando is giving me and the Japanese journalist a hard time, then it’s nothing compared to the poor Elle Deco reporter who is taking a real hammering, softened perhaps by the translator. “Are there any building styles that he hates or would never use?” she asks, vacuously. “Yes, well of course there are some things maybe he doesn’t wish, but your question is too open...” She perseveres: “Will he get specific about things he doesn’t like? So, for me, pastiche houses, the kind of mock tudor, faking-the-past kind of thing would be something I don’t like. What is it that he doesn’t like?” The translator eventually comes up with: “He doesn’t know…” It would be cruel to continue with the bit where the Pritzker-prize winning architect was asked: “What gives him a buzz about his job?”
“I don’t understand your questions,” says Ando, finally, and begins to shift his attention away from the table. The interview is over. A press breakfast like this is a terrible environment for any kind of sophisticated discussion, but Ando is one of those international architects whose assumptions have gone unchallenged for a very long time. And he certainly wasn’t about to change them over morning coffee at a café in Liverpool Street station.