CONNECTING HUMANS AND NATURE. I interviewed the eminent Japanese architect Tadao Ando at Château La Coste, the beautiful hotel and vineyard located near Aix-en-Provence, where Ando was opening a show of his drawings in the art centre that he built in 2011. Afterwards Ando was going on to Paris, as he is restoring and rebuilding the Bourse de Commerce building to become a museum that houses the Pinault Collection.


You started your career as a boxer, and you never went to architecture school. How did you learn to be an architect?

My family was poor, so I was not able to go to school to learn. The house I grew up in was a one storey building. When I was a teenager and the house was being expanded, a carpenter came every day, to build the second floor. The carpenter was working so hard, and I was struck by his passion, forgetting even to eat his lunch, and he was working with such joy that this gave me an interest in architecture and building.

Why were you a boxer? Is there a connection with architecture?

Near my home there was a boxing gym, and I didn’t think it looked that hard; and when you fight you get paid. I turned out to be relatively good, so I started boxing. The connection is that once you are in the ring you are alone, on your own, and I learnt that mentality in boxing; and the same is true for architecture. Once you start a project you don’t rely on anyone else.

Why did you stop boxing?

To be a great boxer you need talent, and for architecture you also need talent. When I was practicing boxing at the gym I met this young man called Harada, and when I saw him fighting hard and practicing against people I realised I would never have his talent as a boxer.

Who told you that you would have talent as an architect?

I was interested in architecture, and luckily Ōsaka is close to Kyōto, whose historical structures I visited frequently when I was 17. I spent hours and hours there in temples. The monks saw me there every day and started showing interest in me and showing me around areas that you can’t visit. I talked to other people who said you have to read this book and visit these buildings. I went to the used bookstore nearby my home to find Le Corbusier’s book, and because I couldn’t afford to buy it I hid under the shelf and traced over the buildings and projects in the book, and I went back to study it every day.

What was you first architecture project and how did you manage to do it?

When I was 28 the brother of my friend asked me to design a house for three family members in Ōsaka. That is actually where my office is today. It’s a corner lot, a house for a wife, a husband and one child. You go up the stairs to the living spaces. After realising this first project in 1976 another client asked me to build a house that turned out to be the Row House of Sumiyoshi.

Can you please tell me about the relationships that you have with your clients?

I create a building together with a client, so it is most important that the client has a vision for the project. I don’t work with a client who doesn’t have any passion and a strong will towards his own project.

“Creating something that sticks to your heart is more important than anything else.”

An overview of the Château La Coste project in Provence.  The Tadao Ando Art Centre takes centre stage amidst the vineyards. ‘Wall of Light Cubed’ by Sean Scully is in the left foreground. © Tadao Ando

How do you find your clients and how do they find you?

Every client I have is from their end. I never approach anyone. For instance, over 25 years ago Giorgio Armani called me over the phone. There have always been very weird and fraudulent phone calls wanting to talk to me, so I didn’t believe it was him and hung up. A week later the person called again, again claiming he was Giorgio Armani, and I realised this was real.

How is working with Giorgio Armani?

After that second phone call I met him right away, and when I went to visit him in Milan I saw him working on fabrics and clothes in his own workplace with a decisiveness and a speed which struck me. He is very committed to every piece he works on, and I was inspired that he cares so much for every piece he produces and works with such passion.

Was Giorgio Armani your first client in Europe?

No, that was Luciano Benetton. I had designed the Seville Expo ’92 Japan pavilion, and when Luciano visited the Expo he was very inspired by it. Through that structure he understood Japanese sensitivity and saw the possibility of cultural collaboration between Europe and Japan.

What did Luciano Benetton want to build?

Fabrica, a school at the Villa Pastega Manera, near Venice. His programme was to collect 100 students from all over the world to stay at the facility, to study and to learn. This was also a renovation of an existing 19th century classical building, so almost everything I created was underground. I talked with him about how we cherished the past and cherish the present and aim for the future. That was our main goal.

You love the light and air in Provence and are inspired by Cézanne and Monet. Did you know this area before you met Paddy McKillen and started to work at his Château La Coste?

In 1965 I visited Marseille when traveling by boat back to Japan. The ship didn’t arrive in time, I waited for days, and so I went back and forth visiting the Le Corbusier structure, a multi-family residential housing project. I feel that it his greatest work. I also had time to visit the Romanesque Church of St. Laurent, a treasure of the world. After visiting these structures I felt it important to minimise the design, and that creating something that sticks to your heart is more important than anything else. There is always this moment when something new is being erected. It is not just buildings, but when Picasso started a new style, or when Cézanne was a founding father of the impressionist movement, or when Monet’s sensitivity towards the light captured it in a new, revolutionary way. Initially Paddy McKillen and Bono from U2 visited me in Japan. When I have a new client I want to understand their personality and mind-set, so I took them to the Church of the Light outside of Ōsaka. Bono asked if it was OK that he sang at the Church of the Light, and he sang Amazing Grace.

Did you come to La Coste because Bono sang Amazing Grace in the Church of the Light?

I had never visited this exact site, but, as I said earlier, I was already familiar with Marseille and was intrigued by the proximity of La Coste to my youth. The Romanesque people died at a young age and didn’t last long physically, but their mind strength has endured. I wanted to build something very quiet, in a place where people could re-energize their mental strength.  After visiting here I felt that I could create something one of a kind and special and only possible here. This is where Cézanne painted, and there is a vineyard, and wine is the livelihood of this whole area. With such a strong base I felt I could capture the identity of the community and its culture.

When was the Church of the Light built?

In 1989. It is a world where there is no differentiation between nature and light and human physical form; everything comes together.

There is this open cross of light?

Because I wanted the human physical form and nature to come together, I didn’t want any glass in there, as the wind coming in is very important. In modern times and with contemporary technology it has become very convenient to have large pieces of glass, but this developed technology actually disengages us from the true essence of architecture and goes in the opposite direction. For the Benetton school there is not a single window. For the Church of the Light I wanted to take the glass out. In another project, the Church on the Water, the glass window slides to the side, so that the whole space becomes open.

Why do you build many places of worship?

You see, when the project is offered to me, first I think deeply about the site and the project, and if I can create something that’s great, but it is more important that physical forms and mentality work together. Mental mind allows humans to live for ever. People in the world tend to think that physical health and strength allows you to live long, but I believe that mental strength allows you to live long, and I want to build structures that express mental strength.

Does Zen culture inspire you?

There is a gentleman called Nishida Kitarō of about a hundred years ago, one of the founders of the Zen philosophy, and also Watsuji Tetsurō.  When I read their Zen writings I really did not understand them, but I took bits and pieces from each and started to understand, slowly. When I was teaching myself architecture I studied how to build a structure, but I also studied the mind-set of human beings.

How do you express this today?

Years ago the Japanese lived in their own world, and everybody in Europe lived in their own comfort zone. Everybody lived in their own comfort zone, but now everybody travels around the world. In my ‘Four Cubes to Contemplate our Environment’ at Château La Coste, my four cubes represent garbage. For example, one cube has CO2 writings on it, expressing that the entire world will be covered with garbage and CO2. That’s the way I express it, through a piece of work.

“The hardest part is not the project, but translating my mental image into a physical form.”

What is your link to François Pinault, in Paris and in Venice?

Karl Lagerfeld was my long-time friend who I trusted and respected, and when he said he wanted to introduce someone very interesting I was intrigued as to who the person was. Initially François Pinault asked me to design Château Latour in Bordeaux, but the site is very difficult so I was not able to realise it. After that Mr Pinault approached me for a museum project on an island on the Seine, to renovate a factory, but again that didn’t go through, even after we had developed a lot of drawings and designs for it. The construction was actually begun, but the project stopped and fell apart. In my experience there are so many things that have been started but didn’t go well. I recall reading a book by Nishida Kitarō on the philosophy of mu, nothingness, and the feeling I had when I read the book was that things don’t always go well but eventually something happens and one can surpass these moments. I let it go for a couple of years, and François Pinault came with a new project, Palazzo Grassi in Venice, followed by Punta della Dogana in Venice, and the Bourse de Commerce in Paris.

How does a contemporary architect approach work in a city like Venice, an architectural masterpiece in itself?

It is not just about a building sticking out of the ground, there are many structures surrounding it, and around the site there are histories and a future. Punta della Dogana is very rich in history, so first I decided we could not touch the existing building out of respect for history. Instead of expressing myself, I wanted to keep the existing building and produce something new inside the structure. I used the same approach for the Bourse de Commerce. In Punta della Dogana I decided to put a square shaped structure in the triangular 14th century building. An important philosophy from the past is that the core shapes are the circle, the square and the triangle, so in Punto della Dogana I decided on a square, and in the Bourse in Paris a circular structure. François Pinault wanted a permanent home for his collection and I have done it in a circle, an everlasting shape. Visually and with feeling, through my design I like to connect the ancient Greek structure and the contemporary structure, the mental image and the physical feeling in one building.

You started with small houses for poor people in your hometown Ōsaka, and from that beginning you have worked all over the world. Is yours a journey where there is something in common between all the projects?

I am not doing architecture as a business. From the very beginning my core approach to design and architecture is us humans living together with nature. From the very beginning with the Row House at Sumiyoshi, when you look up at the sky from the courtyard and that sky belongs to you. This allows you to connect with planet earth and makes you feel that this is your own world. Contemporary architecture and art need to create similar feelings, the connections between humans and nature. Little art gets to me, but when it does I am deeply affected by it.

An artist like Giacometti for example makes every sculpture in his own particular way, and a Van Gogh has his colour. What does Ando have, so that one looks at a place and says this is Ando? Is it like that for you?

I hope so.  I have tried my best to create something that people can tell is Tadao Ando in spirit. When you enter the space or the building, it is very important that you connect with nature one way or another, and I want to create something that is very sharp in that sense, the emotional connection that you feel through the building, and I hope everything will have that strength.

Is it more difficult to build a museum, a temple, or a private house?

The hardest part is not the project, but translating my mental image into a physical form. I like to create something that is on the edge, not comfortable, disturbing, that creates a certain ‘nervousness’ whenever people visit, that has this butterfly feeling in your mind when you visit.

I don’t understand. What do you want to create?

It is not a specific nervousness of feeling you get through a building, it is this butterfly feeling on entering the building; it’s not a style or a materiality. It’s a feeling.

Do you care about the comfort and security in a house, or for you is it just a shape?

For residences of course I think about the livelihood of the client and what they are like, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it and being with the client. I like to add this nervousness through a structure with a comfort. Today the new structures are getting larger and larger to accommodate more and more people, and it is very difficult to convey these feelings to so many people.

You don’t like big buildings?

For certain larger projects of course, but my preference is smaller projects that allow you to connect with the heart. I am doing a very small hotel project of only ten rooms for Paddy McKillen in Gion, in Kyōto. Gion has a very traditional lifestyle that you see day and night. The hotel is located on a small site next to a river, and I felt that there I could make something that captured the traditional culture of Kyōto, which is becoming modernised today.

Do you like horizontal or vertical buildings?

Horizontal. I haven’t done skyscrapers, and I prefer something that is closer to the ground, because if you go higher it becomes business. For example, when you spend time in Kyōto in a small traditional house hotel, when you have nothingness in your mind you realise how well made the space is, and you can start feeling the culture and tradition without even knowing too much about it. Forty years ago I visited the Pantheon in Rome, alone. No one else was in there, and I was just standing there and looking up; and I realised it was a nothingness of forever, and that the eight metre wide diameter circular hole in the top moves along with the sun, and it gives us the relationship between the light and shadow, and the fact that it moves around expresses the earth.

Is life in Japan very much determined by the seasons?

The very beautiful and great part about Japan is its four seasons, for each of which we change how we dress and the design elements we have placed in the house. For example, the warmer paintings of winter are replaced to give a breezy feeling of spring; traditionally, even the food dishes you eat change every season.  The rich culture of Japan expresses the four seasons very well.

Church of the Light, Ibaraki. © Tadao Ando

Church on the Water, Hokkaido. © Tadao Ando

Château La Coste, Provence. ‘Small Crinkly’ by Alexander Calder is shown to the right. © Tadao Ando

Row House, Sumiyoshi. © Tadao Ando

Punta della Dogana, Venice. © Tadao Ando

Bourse de Commerce de Paris. © Tadao Ando

“We forget who we are as a human, an animal living in nature.”

What do you teach young architects at Harvard and other schools around the world?

This is not only for architects, but there is only one earth and the population is increasing. People don’t appreciate the physical form, food, energy, nature, as much as we used to. Education is the most important part. Compared to Europe, in Asia as a whole there are a lot of parts that are really uneducated.

How do you educate yourself if you want to become an architect?

I would like people to read more physical books and magazines, and use smartphones less. It is very convenient to have a smartphone, and we humans are all attracted to and lean towards every single convenience. But Château La Coste is not convenient, and the island of Naoshima is even worse, it is on a small island in the ocean, so very inconvenient.  When you are somewhere inconvenient you are disconnected to the rest of the world, so you start connecting internally with nature and the surroundings, and this enriches your creativity and mind. There is a district in Tokyo consisting of an artificial island made of compacted garbage, about the size of a golf course. From around 2005 I collected 70,000 people and created a movement to start planting trees on this garbage island, which over a decade later has become green and full of trees, and will be used for Olympic events in 2020.

What is your working day?

I arrive at the office at 10am, and now, after my cancer, I rest for about an hour after lunch and then work until 6pm when I go to the gym. That’s six days a week. I am missing five organs from my body, including my pancreas, gall bladder and spleen, but mental ambition allows you to live long. Having a goal in life and going to museums and being exposed to different cultures enriches your sensitivity and allows you to live long.

What are your new projects?

I will design two or three more structures in Naoshima.  In the Netherlands we are doing an extension and renovation of the Kröller-Müller museum in Gelderland, a museum with a very large collection of Van Goghs. The world has a passion for big buildings and I focus on connection with your feelings and heart through a building, and I believe it is easier for people to feel through a small structure.

Is this why only 27 people work for you and you only have a single office?

Yes. I don’t want to expand to the outside world, and I like to control and take responsibility for every project on my own.

Which do you consider to be the most important achievements for your legacy?

The Row House of Sumiyoshi, where you have an interior courtyard and you have your own sky; and the Church of the Light, where you engage constantly with the light but are not flooded by it; and the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, and Punta della Dogana in Venice, both will leave a very big mark.

What about in America?

If I had to choose, it would be the Pulitzer Arts Foundation Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.

How do you perceive the role of Japan in the world of today?

Until World War II Japan was great. Japanese people were very cultured, but not there yet economically. After World War II the economy grew rapidly, and we started losing the culture and tradition of Japan, and now today the young generations have no interest in the tradition of the country and are not even trying to understand its cultural foundations. I believe that once you start losing the identity of the country from your soul, it will destroy itself. For a time Japan was strong globally economically, but it is already weaker than China and Indonesia.

Are Japan’s relations with China difficult?

It’s not about a good relationship or not, the population is so significantly different that you cannot compare. In the past decade the Chinese economy grew rapidly and that’s when population size comes into play. But China only has the economy, it is their biggest strength, and America only cares about the economy. With globalisation we all have to think about this earth as one, and try to resolve the issues.

What would you like to say in conclusion?

When you are old, in your nineties before you pass, in the past people went to church, or to their monk, or to meditate to bring themselves back, but today no one does that – so, when one passes away, there is no good memory or connection to the earth. We forget who we are as a human, an animal living in nature. We forget that core component of us humans, so, when it passes, what is there to remember? I want to create a space you can remember, something that sticks to your heart, that sticks to your body. That is the main philosophy behind my design.


Provence, April 2019

All images are © Tadao Ando and are by kind permission of Tadao Ando.