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Tadao Ando's Thoughtful Heart

Two recent books track a trajectory of a spiritual engagement with Modernism.

By Norman Weinstein
October 24, 2012

Arguably, Tadao Ando’s architectural output of the past 37 years makes him the most significant Japanese architect of our time – a status that he might care a whit about. What two recent books, Ando: Complete Works 1975-2012, by Philip Jodidio (Taschen, 2012), and Tadao Ando: Conversations with Students (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) suggest is that his career has always been centrally focused upon a ruminative dialogue with the natural world through spiritually-infused design. Being a self-taught architect, Ando created his own curriculum by his early twenties, one with enough breadth and depth to encompass such seeming contraries as boxing and Buddhism! Driven by a curiosity sated only by world travel, spotlighting in his emergent design consciousness the major works of Frank Lloyd Wright, La Corbusier, and Louis Kahn, Ando saw and astutely analyzed Western Modernism through a Japanese spiritual sensibility. The Japanese word “kokora” resists one simple definition in English translation – but it seems to fit Ando well. The psychologist James Hillman’s “Thought of the Heart” phrase perhaps comes closest to describing Ando’s spiritual sensibility realized in design. And while neither of these new Ando books directly clarifies Ando’s quality of kokora, they indirectly, magnificently open a wide range of insights into his singular career.


Tadao Ando: Conversations with Students offers a snapshot of the architect’s thinking aloud surrounded by students at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Architecture in 1998. The book’s title is an annoying misnomer. These are excerpts from five lectures, with only two student questions at the back of this slim volume hinting at any kind of engaging dialogue. Nevertheless, this first English translation, by Matthew Hunter, of Ando’s remarks rewards a close reading. He clearly declares his mission in his first lecture:


“ . . . I became painfully aware of the importance of our memory of landscape. At the same time, I realized once again, the enormous social responsibility my work bears in shaping this memory . . . How can we form places where people can find the hope and courage to live?”


Note the emphasis Ando places on his career modulating between honoring the history encoded in the natural landscape, and creating designed places that are life-affirming in the present and future. To succeed in this balancing act, Ando quickly realized that he would have to tweak Modernism into his distinctive version:


“. . . I became deeply wary of the gap between modernity that symbolized uniformity and homogeneity, and the reality of place, climate, and history . . . By inheriting not merely form, but the hidden spirit within that form (my italics), I wanted to return to architecture a sense of identity and specificity. Through the incorporation of natural elements such as light, wind, and water, I tried to express local climate, features, and culture while simultaneously introducing a contemporaneity and universality using the language and materials of modern architecture and geometric composition.


Put succulently, Ando grounded, aerated, and spiritualized the International Style’s stark concrete and glass minimalism. He evoked the energy of the hidden spirits active in Nature while designing with urban-scaled expanses of concrete and glass. Having never undergone conventional academic architectural training, he hadn’t mastered the “art” of bifurcating technical knowhow from flowering spiritual passion, didn’t split intellect from heart. I wonder what careers unfolded for those Tokyo students treated to Ando’s remarks? Did he promote the proliferation of creative drop-outs by heralding what is so rarely available to would-be architects in schools? In any event, it is salutary to hear Ando thinking aloud about the forces marking his career.


And Jodidio’s Ando: Complete Works 1975-2012 offers an ideal companion to Ando’s lectures. Lavishly packaged with superbly reproduced drawings and photographs of 58 of his major projects, this dense but reasonably sized and priced coffee-table volume also includes thumbnail photos of all Ando completed designs, and a useful biography and bibliography. Jodidio’s analysis is reliably perceptive and succinct. With an apt emphasis on Ando’s Buddhist temples and Christian churches, and with finely detailed photographs that capture the dynamic circulatory pathways into and through his structures, this book justly honors an architect dancing between visible materials and the invisible spirits inhabiting them.


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at


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(click on pictures to enlarge)