This year, Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design presented its annual Richard J. Neutra Award for Professional Excellence to 70-year-old Tadao Ando. Previous winners have included Renzo Piano, Thom Mayne, and Ray Kappe, although the Osaka-based Ando is the only architect to have won the discipline’s four most prestigious prizes: the Pritzker (1995), the Carlsberg (1992), the Praemium Imperiale (1996), and the Kyoto Prize (2002). While sitting at Neutra’s VDL House a few hours before accepting the award, Ando, speaking in Japanese and with a translator, sat down with AN contributor Jonathan Louie to discuss his views on architecture and its relationship to nature and academics, as well as the role he believes that architects should play in society.
The Architect’s Newspaper: You have been successfully in practice for over four decades and are self-taught. In the past, you have talked about modernist masters playing a large role in your education. What lessons have you learned from Richard Neutra and California modernism?
Tadao Ando: First of all, I know the work of Richard Neutra as he worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, in the sense that he relates to that legacy. But when you come here and look at the house, it has such a strong sense of modernism as it relates to the Case Study Houses and the tradition of his generation. At the same time, when you come to the house, it has a sense of the bright future because of the openness and the way the architecture is designed. For me, I feel like I learned through Neutra’s work about the spirit of the new world.
Architectural historian Kenneth Frampton described you as an exemplar of critical regionalism for the way you’ve successfully blended cultural tradition with the tenets of modernism. Was there a turning point or event in your career that influenced your perception of architecture?
For me, architecture is really a condition of what it will be. Whether you make architecture in Los Angeles, in New York, or in Japan, the context of architecture— the culture, the environment, the people that create architecture, and people that use architecture—are all completely different. For that reason, I think it’s more interesting for people who contemplate architecture to think about it with that context in mind, and for people who use architecture, to use it in that context. So it’s not something that happens because of what you have to do, but it’s something that reflects the philosophy of the people—not only the people that make it but also the people that live in it—and that’s the kind of dialogue that’s important for people to think about in architecture.
Your Malibu House is currently nearing completion in LA. Can you tell us more about the design concept and execution?
First of all, there are three houses that I designed, and two are under construction. For me, it’s important for any house that I design to have a sense of living with nature in its particular context. And especially in this case, I would like to see the overlapping and integrating of Western and Eastern ways of living. In Malibu, the idea that you could really merge and live together with the ocean is something that’s very strong in my mind, and I tried to integrate that into the context of how the house works.
It seems that an important aspect of your work is an emphasis on authenticity, a response to nature, and an interest in craft. Conversely, the current architectural world relies heavily on the digital realm. How do you mediate between the two?
When you talk about being digital, it’s very true that it’s of the times. But also, as human beings, we have sensibilities and emotions that derive from feeling and touching things that are handmade or based on part of your being. Because of that, it’s important to try to balance between the two. Especially at the same time, the logic that comes from digital fabrication and architecture makes it very difficult to feel an attachment or even an emotional response to things that are mass-produced. So when you come to a place like the VDL House and you see the detailing and materials, you have a response that makes you feel human. It’s important for architects to work in both digital technologies and emotional sensibilities in order that you can touch someone’s hearts with your work.
To students who are currently learning about the discourse of architecture, particularly in the age of the computer, what would you say?
About advice I think there are two levels that should be talked about: First of all, on the global and social level, I think it’s important to advise young students—and future generations—that we live in a time when materials, resources, and food are going to be limited. With these limitations, we all have a big part to play in the profession and in our designs and to do work that recognizes the condition that we live in. In doing so, we have the ability to service—with intelligence—future generations.
And on the architectural level, I think my advice is that it’s very important for architecture to touch people and to have a role in inspiring them. And we have to do that with the means—which is the digital technology—we have in our hands. But at the same time, it is important to really touch people with the sensibilities that we have to perceive architecture, and to create architecture in a way that still has meaning for people. That’s what I think is important for young people to understand.
You were heavily involved in the Kobe earthquake reconstruction. What responsibility does the architect have to engage with the environment around him or her?
First of all, architecture, if you can call it an art form, is about the expression of the will of the architect. On that note, we are all on our own, based on the talent and level that we can express using the medium that we chose. But at the same time, as an architect you are a participating member in society, and you know that your architecture can never survive without being part of that society. For this reason it’s very important for architects to realize the role that they have as professionals in relationship to society, whether it’s responsibility for the environment that their designs may impact or having an influence in the political and social realm. Architects have to have the power to express, and they have to have the ability to relate to society in a meaningful way.
We all live in the global environment together; for that reason you have to be aware of your existence and your impact. But, also, on an artistic level, you are alone in your own world of thinking about your work, so these have to both be integrated—your work and the role that you play.