New York

Tadao Ando

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Tadao Ando is part of a small, distinguished roster of modern architects, including Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, who had no formal architectural education but went on to conceive and build some of the most innovative and influential buildings of the 20th century. His subtly orchestrated projects are characterized by spartan interiors, dramatic lighting, the use of tough materials, and daring siting. Thus far, Ando has worked only in his native Japan, but his growing renown will undoubtedly generate international projects.

Ando’s buildings were the principal subject of this exhibition, but the architect was also responsible for the design of the elaborate presentation of his work at the museum. Though his architecture is characterized by restraint and distillation, the exhibition concept was pompous and overproduced. Indeed, his understated architecture barely survived the extravagances of the installation. There were many moments in this Busby Berkeley–like fiasco when it was impossible to imagine that the same designer who has achieved such clarified form and exquisite luminosity in his buildings could have dreamed up such a congested, promotional display. Was it the architect who temporarily lost his senses or the museum?

Yet despite the hyperstimulation of videos with Vivaldi sound tracks, drawings, and models that appeared to have consumed dangerous doses of steroids, Ando’s extraordinary vision of architectural space ultimately shone through like a beacon. A dozen projects presented the architect at work in rural, suburban, and urban sites, on single buildings, multifaceted complexes, and adaptive renovations. The building programs included those for houses, churches, schools, and large cultural institutions. Two projects, in particular, convey the generous scope of Ando’s program.

The Chikatsku-Asuka Historical Museum in Minami-Kawachi, Osaka, is currently under construction in wild, hilly topography. Embedded in the earth, the building’s visible components include sloped stairs cut by a deep channel, a slender tower, as well as an inverted tower that serves as a below-grade light well. These spare elements constitute a belvedere to observe dramatic surroundings scattered with ancient imperial tombs and burial mounds. They also mark a subterranean museum for the objects extracted from these domains for the dead. The artifacts are presented in an underground chamber that, illuminated solely by the light shaft, recalls the tombs from which they were excavated.

In contrast, “The Church of the Light,” 1987–89, in lbaraki, Osaka, is a spare volume that sits astride its dramatic site. Built of cast concrete (like most of Ando’s projects), its rectangular interior is cut by a long, oblique, freestanding wall, dividing the space into a triangular antechamber and a main sanctuary. Simple seating arranged on a sloping concrete floor defines the area of congregation. At the front of the church, the concrete wall is split by two axes that form a cross. During the day sunlight passes through the slender channels of glass to create a symbolic presence of ecclesiastical light at the altar. This project was represented by black and white photographs that conveyed the dynamic effects of illumination and by a lilliputian wooden model embedded in a thick wall. The viewer could peer, like a giant, into the elegantly edited space. Here the presentation conceit was quite persuasive and faithful to the character of the project.

Ando’s orchestration of platonic forms and natural sites, corporeality and lightness, formal abstraction and emotional resonance is unusual. Though his austere architecture serves as a bulwark against the chaos of the world, it is precisely its quality of disengagement—this sense of escapism—that is disturbing. Yet there are signs in the most recent work that the designer is questioning the viability of the cloister—that architecture as a hermetic haven is, for Ando, newly open to question.

Patricia C. Phillips