The Concrete Splendor of Tadao Ando

The primal power of Tadao Ando derives from his sublime use of one material—concrete—and one move.

There’s a moment in A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s 1998 book on hiking the Appalachian Trail, when he emerges from the forest to find a beautiful river and an ugly bridge ruining the scenery. It may have been at the Delaware Water Gap, that little moment of out-West-scale geological grandeur in the East, but it matters little. We’ve all seen similar scenes; this country is a mess. What caught my attention was Bryson’s description of the bridge as a product of “the Age of Concrete,” and that with a disparaging tone.

Having grown up in Boston, with its rich history of poured-in-place wonders—I. M. Pei’s gorgeous and forgotten Christian Science Center perhaps chief among them—I’ve always had an exaggerated love for concrete. My earliest memories of being affected by architecture are set in the dim halls of Paul Rudolph’s Boston Government Service Center (a complex even more thorough­ly forgotten than Pei’s), where the architect took all the tricks he’d tried at the Art and Architecture Building, in New Haven, and multiplied them by his increased star power. It’s a pile of corduroy concrete in the shape of the Campo, in Siena, decorated with quotations from Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette and built to the megastructural scale of the most ambitious urban renewal. It’s dark and unforgiving and, in my memories, always wet. It’s perfect. If Rudolph’s masterpiece is a product of the Age of Concrete, I don’t think we should ever grow out of it.

As I mentioned in the last issue, vis-à-vis Polshek Partnership’s new Standard Hotel, in New York, part of the joy of appreciating concrete buildings is that the material makes it harder for architects to lie. It is what it is: rock shaped by the architect’s imagination. There’s a little steel thrown in to handle tensile forces, sure, and pipes and insulation and wires and all the rest, but in unifying structure and skin a lot of the obscuring mess of a typical curtain-wall building is eliminated. In short, concrete buildings are primal. Primal is good. And if a building can be both primal and refined, well…isn’t that why we all love Tadao Ando?

In the summer of 1993, I went to Japan on a three-week exchange program for architecture students. Part of that time we were in charrette with our hosts at Waseda University (I’m not sure anything notable came from those studios), but the rest was spent touring: Kyoto, Osaka, etc. The hyped Koolhaas and Holl apartments in Fukuoka. The trendy, expendable Hello Kitty constructions that Japanese architects were filling their cities with at the time. With my concrete fetish then in full swing, all I really wanted to see were Ando’s buildings, particularly his religious buildings, where, given the nature of the program, the concrete could be more wholly concrete.

As with millions of pilgrims before and since, I wasn’t disappointed. The Church of the Light, a concrete box lit by a cruciform window behind the altar, was a revelation, not just for its unlikely serenity—it sits on a loud and homely corner in the suburbs of Osaka—but for the perfection of its pours. I realized there that all the American concrete I had grown up loving, all the béton brut (“raw concrete”) I’d traveled through Europe to adore, had only been riffing on a single, rather mundane note. Concrete this perfect was otherworldly. From there it was off to Awaji, an island in the Inland Sea, where Ando had built a facility for Buddhist monks known as the Water Temple. Putting water in contact with concrete, as Ando did there—on the roof, no less, in a pool through which one enters down a staircase—is an act of pure hubris, water being the one thing you want to keep away from concrete, the element that will, as surely as a jackhammer, reduce it to dust in time.

Ando played a similarly charged game with his famous Church on the Water, in Hokkaido (which I regret not being able to visit), and the pools surrounding his 2002 museum in Fort Worth (which I have not yet seen). He is set to perform the same trick in his master plan for the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

There, gods and budgets willing, he will eventually complete an exhibition, visitor, and conference center set on a large new pond at the foot of a treasured hillside meadow—a major intervention that will tie together the Clark’s existing Berk­shire campus. As of now, though, only a single, rather minor outbuilding has been realized, up the hill in the woods.

The Clark is a fine little museum with a varied collection, about which I knew absolutely nothing before visiting its lonely corner of northwestern Massachusetts last summer, despite a lifetime in or near the state. For the next 25 years or so, a visit there can be paired with a stop at the must-see Sol LeWitt installation at Mass MoCA, the work of a team of 60 artists and students who re-created the murals according to recipes provided by the artist before his death. By the time that exhibit closes—the rights to the LeWitts are only on long-term loan—the whole Ando plan for the Clark may be completed; it could be among his best work.

What stands there now, just opened, are two small galleries, a classroom, and a conservation facility. The Stone Hill Center is something of a tease. I suppose I was hoping for a building such as Harvard’s Carpenter Center, where Corbusier designed a sort of late-career glossary, a compendium of all his moves. But Ando doesn’t have that many moves. He thinks in walls, and when he gets really inspired he may curve one. More often, he cuts one of his walls into a “seven” shape, grabbing or penetrating an otherwise unbroken box, as he did at the Church of the Light. If you’re going to have so few moves, it’s not a bad one to lean on.

A pair of “seven” walls at the Clark does a lot: accommodating the grade of its forested hillside site, forming a large terrace with nice mountain views. What more should walls do? The press conference to celebrate the opening last summer was staged in a room with a gracious window looking out over a very narrow court (and a cluster of Noguchis on loan) to one such wall. Someone asked Ando why he put it there. The obvious answer was to screen the parking lot from view. But he seemed genuinely flummoxed, speaking fewer Japanese words than usual in response; when the translation of his answer spooled back (even though, people who have spent time with him confirm, Ando speaks very good English), it was revealed that the great architect placed the wall there to “divide one space from another.”

Such is the use to which any wall might be put. But to do so in concrete gives the gesture the power of certainty, and thus a great dignity, even in a building so minor and compact. Though the walls may crumble in places and reveal their rebar bones, though these may rust out and the whole blow away in time, at the scale of human life spans, at least, they are permanent. Or at least a bitch to move. A metalworker friend of mine once told me of the superhuman rush of joining metal to metal with heat, the godlike appeal. Building in concrete must offer a similar feeling to the architect. It is forever, almost. Nothing goes to ruin better. And, while we wait for the Clark to build out its Ando plan, the Stone Hill Center, whole or ruined, is certainly an asset to the land.

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