Walking down the street, it is hard to distinguish the Ando Museum from the surrounding structures, which makes complete sense because it is, in fact, a century-old village house. On the outside, it features traditional architectural elements such as ceramic roof tiles, wooden planks and screened doors, while the interiors are transformed by the addition of sleek skylights and angular concrete walls. Photographs by Kunal Bhatia and Shuvajit Payn
(Walking down the street, it is hard to distinguish the Ando Museum from the surrounding structures, which makes complete sense because it is, in fact, a century-old village house. On the outside, it features traditional architectural elements such as ceramic roof tiles, wooden planks and screened doors, while the interiors are transformed by the addition of sleek skylights and angular concrete walls. Photographs by Kunal Bhatia and Shuvajit Payn)
Japanese architecture is best described in three terms: minimal presence, sensitivity to context and thorough detailing. Nowhere are these philosophies better understood than in the prolific works of Tadao Ando, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1995, and by far the most well-known Japanese architect of the contemporary era. Ando is largely self-taught, through apprenticeships and field visits. His repertoire of projects spans a spectrum of scales, typologies and programmes, including single-family homes, cultural institutions and religious structures.
Step into the courtyard of the Ando Museum and certain signature styles of the architect reveal themselves. The linear slit on the left wall, for instance, allows framed views of the entrance court. It draws a parallel to shakkei—the practice of “borrowed scenery” present in traditional Japanese garden design.
A delightful example of Ando’s genius is the Church of the Light near Osaka where two intersecting cuts in a concrete wall form the iconographic imagery of the crucifix, and which comes to life as daylight filters through.
Walking through the void between the walls at the Lee Ufan Museum is an austere experience; their heaviness is balanced only by the open skies above. What lies ahead remains completely unknown till one turns around the middle wall. Only then do you get a hint of further space, possibly tucked into the hillside.
But it is perhaps in Naoshima, an otherwise obscure island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, that Ando’s architectural mastery can be most thoughtfully appreciated.
There is a carefully choreographed balance between the “objects” at the Lee Ufan Museum: The walls stretching into the surrounding hills form a subtle backdrop, the concrete pole acts as a countering vertical element in the foreground, and its own soaring nature is grounded by the mass of the solitary rock. The latter two are works by Korean artist Lee Ufan. The first is created by Ando to hold Ufan’s pieces, art and architecture once again striking up a conversation.
The tiny island’s relatively cut-off location—it takes over 4 hours from Tokyo, with transfers from a bullet train to a local train to a ferry—and its scenic setting make it an alluring enough ground for experimental work. Enriching the experience, however, is the close integration of Ando’s architecture with the art that it houses. For over the last three decades, the island has been revitalized as an art destination by Benesse Holdings, a Japanese education and publishing conglomerate. Since 1992, Ando has lent his expertise to as many as eight structures on the island, including hotels, museums and galleries.
Ando’s elemental concrete forms at Benesse House recede gracefully into the background to let this artwork by Walter de Maria take centre stage. Made of a pair of polished granite spheres, the work is titled Seen/Unseen Known/Unknown.
Walking around the island during a day trip a few months ago, we came face to face with Ando’s characteristic gestures. The foremost is the finesse with which he harnesses the potential of concrete—shaping and slicing it to create dramatic variations. In a nod to the pristine landscape of the island, a number of structures are situated underground—all the galleries of the Chichu Art Museum, for instance—yet Ando manages to play skilfully with natural light and create spaces that never fail to surprise even the most sceptical of visitors.
The approach to Benesse House is along a paved pathway, with a tall stone wall on one side and foliage on the other. Towards the end, one is treated to a sweeping vista of the seas; however, the path then continues around the stone wall, leading back in the direction one began from. This intentional winding approach, borrowed from traditional Japanese architecture, is a nudge towards freeing the mind from thoughts of the outside before entering the museum.