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Tadao Ando’s huge stone statue of the Buddha concealed within a hill covered in lavender plants at the Makomanai Takino Cemetery in Sapporo.

Building upon what exists, creating that which does not exist — Culture is something that needs to be nurtured on top of accumulated history and memories.  . . . it is about creating a condition where the old and new coexist in a fine balance. 

This quote by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando is an wonderful observation about the creative process. I recently had the opportunity to attend an important exhibition of his past and present work at the National Arts Center in Tokyo, Japan. I was unfamiliar with his architectural achievements and happy to learn more about this influential and accomplished person.

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National Art Center in Tokyo, Japan

A Buddha rising out of the earth — the metaphors are endless. Tadao Ando’s setting in Sapporo struck me immediately as an original and effective way to present the philosophy of Buddhism. His church structures, using light to emphasize the crucifix, soften the use of concrete as his building medium.

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The Church of the Light in Ibaraki, Osaka

I am not an expert in architecture. However, I feel that it is my responsibility as an artist to expose myself to as much creativity as possible, purposefully moving out of my comfort zone. I approached this exhibition as a way to learn more about someone who won a top prize in their field, a cultural leader in Japan, a country I enjoy very much, and an architect whose buildings have been influential and notable around the planet. This is not a review of his work because I do not have the expertise to do so, instead sharing only my  reactions and observations.

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Model of past projects by Tadao Ando

The exhibition began with numerous models of previous work, meticulously crafted in layers of wood, cardboard, and other materials. With my background in theater, including study of stage design, this was very interesting to me. The models were beautifully rendered, as you can see in these photos.

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I was then surprised to find that Mr. Ando’s medium of choice was concrete, something permanent, unlikely to fall in an earthquake or natural disaster. It was disjarring, as concrete seemed like the least environmentally friendly material to me. In fact, the following week, a new friend who is an architect mentioned this immediately when I shared that I had attended the exhibition. She felt that Ando’s work was not environmentally sensitive, and that was many people’s professional criticism. I could definitely see her point.

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However, Ando has moved in a more environmentally-friendly direction in recent years. A native of Osaka, his office is in the city and he has dedicated many new structures to the city, transforming the central island and adding landscaping as a major element. He is now working often with gardens and living walls, changing his focus to blend his buildings with natural locations. He describes his inclusion of the environment in his architectural designs:

What is architecture in the first place? I believe that the essence of architecture is the creation of relationships between artificial and natural, individual and social, present and past, and various events related to human society. In that sense, the activity of planting trees with people and reclaiming greenery to the city is also an architecture for me.

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On an island off of Japan, he is building numerous houses and community buildings for the local population to interact with new means of design. What I enjoyed greatly in the exhibition was observing his thought process over time, seeing how his designs an ideas evolved over many decades. I always prefer seeing an artist’s comprehensive retrospective rather than only a few works in a collection so that I can begin to understand how the artist grew over time.

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Creativity’s puzzle is what interests me. How does the artist think? What inspires someone to attempt to create or invent something new? How does the past inform the creator’s present? Without an exploration of these issues, it becomes challenging to understand creativity. Every creative person solves their personal puzzle for their own self-expression, inspired by the world around them and what has already been achieved in their field.

“There is only so much that we can do to solve the problems of the environment as creators of buildings. In the end, it all comes down to the awareness and sensitivity of each and every person living within it. Imagine if everyone saw their everyday surroundings as their own problem and took action in whatever small way they could. There could be no endeavor more creative or richer with possibilities than this. I believe that such visions that urge people to think freely beyond preconceptions and existing frameworks will be crucial for our future.” — Tadao Ando

For more information on architect Tadao Ando:


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