The Church of the Light in Osaka is a small building consisting of three concrete cubes. As you enter the main chapel, you immediately notice a cross, illuminated through the sunlight that pierces through slits in the concrete. But its spartan interior also causes a sense of disquiet for many who step inside — a point deliberately made by its architect Tadao Ando, who wanted worshippers to fill the blankness of the space with their own spiritual thoughts. It is this philosophy that has influenced a lot of Ando’s works, many of which function almost as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which to project one’s own thoughts and emotions.
As a child, Ando, who grew up in downtown Osaka, was strong-willed and energetic. “I could keep myself awake for three days straight,” he recalls. “I wasn’t good at studying, but I was serious about playing. After school, I was always uninhibited and free. I would run around the riverside and play by the river. Whether it was fishing or catching dragonflies, I learned how to live while being in nature and playing around nature. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I learned everything important about life from playing.”
The young Ando started life as a boxer. While he admits the two don’t have direct connections, looking back he has found some parallels. “Architecture and boxing have two points in common; one is that the serious tension will always be present and two, you need physical and mental fitness for that. I think the experience from boxing, which pushes both the mental and physical limits, has been helpful in the world of architecture,” he says.
He first developed an interest in architecture aged 14, when he met a math teacher and a young carpenter who were remodelling his home. “Knowing these two people with different professions, I became interested in the world of architecture. When you consider the thinking behind mathematics and building a building, you can do both of that in architecture, and that’s when I started having a vague attraction to architecture,” he says.
Unlike many modern day architects, Ando famously skipped traditional architectural school. He was aware of the architectural route in high school, and wanted to enrol into the university course, but a combination of what he describes as “financial constraints at home and my lacklustre academic abilities” meant he had to give up this route. “In the end, I did not get professional education in architecture and I didn’t go to college,” he says. “I was self-taught and learned a lot while I was working. That required a substantial amount of determination.”
Unlike pioneers of modernist architecture like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who both self-studied at the turn of the century, Ando was a part of Japanese society, which places a high value on formal education and training.
“Fortunately, architecture has models everywhere in society,” says Ando. He took advantage of living in the Kansai region growing up and frequently visited the Todaiji and Toshodaiji temples, where he spent time observing and immersing himself in the space. “I learned the Japanese aesthetic and the essence of architecture this way. On Saturdays and Sundays, I walked around and look at architecture. While sketching, I reflected on the ideas and intentions of the creator and thought deeply about the future or architecture. By repeating these ruminations over and over again, I would come to find the world of architecture interesting,” he says. This Zen-like approach to architecture would continue not just in his study, but in his practice and architectural philosophy.
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