How local vision attracted Tadao Ando’s first Australian project
Long before he won architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, Tadao Ando was a boxer known as The Great Ando. Title rings of courage and self-confidence. Boxing was short-lived, but it was his belief in himself that propelled his career in architecture.
He was too impatient for university or training – “I was fired within three days because of my stubbornness” – Ando taught himself. However, the name boxing still applies to many.
Since he exploded in 1976 with a dilapidated house that turned its back to the street and opened its interior to the sky, Ando’s heavyweight brand of uncompromising concrete minimalism continues to lure like-minded — and very wealthy — iconoclasts into his corner.
Mercury musician Kanye West paid $73 million for an Ando-designed beach house in Malibu before controversially damaging it during an extensive renovation that has yet to be completed. For fashion designer Tom Ford, Ando designed an elegant ranch house in New Mexico. The Benetton family requested an “invisible house” buried within the verdant Italian landscape.
Among his regular patrons was billionaire François Pinault, who commissioned Ando to build large galleries for his private art collections housed inside modified Venice and Paris landmarks. Finally, Ando inserted a stunning cylindrical concrete pavilion measuring 29 meters in diameter inside the magnificent heritage-listed Paris Stock Exchange. Ando also designed the Pulitzer Art Foundation’s main museum building in St. Louis and the stunning 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT Museum in Tokyo.
This month, its first Australian building will be launched in Melbourne. Commissioned by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation, this will be the tenth incarnation of the annual MPavilion located in Queen Victoria Gardens opposite NGV International on St Kilda Road.
“It’s like giving a Picasso painting,” says award-winning architect Sean Goodsell, who is helping to realize the project in the absence of the 82-year-old Ando.
As with his most famous, large-scale works, Ando’s pavilion is designed with simple geometric forms. Precast concrete features his signature uniform array of exposed holes left by the wooden formwork. If the tactile simplicity suggests cold, forbidding hideaways, acolytes swear the interiors are “sacred places.”
Godsell attests to the “sense of silence” in Ando’s buildings. “This silence allows for self-reflection that manifests itself in a feeling of joy and optimism that is in fact sacred.”
So why did Ando accept this small commission?
“I gravitate toward clients with strong visions who are passionate about their projects,” Ando says via email. “I appreciate MPavilion’s civic ambitions.” (It is perhaps no coincidence that Melbourne is the sister city of Osaka, Ando’s birthplace, where he remains based despite international commissions.)
Due to ill health, Ando is unable to travel to Melbourne, but Godsell, who designed the first MPavilion in 2014, says it is “a great honor to assist an architect whom I have greatly admired throughout my career”.
The key to replicating the distinctive elegant concrete surfaces is waterproof wood moldings. Prototypes were made and a representative from Ando’s office approached for final approval. The office was clearly happy to allow for subtle regional variations in concrete mix and formwork. Only close inspection will reveal that Ando’s signature formwork openings are conical in shape, not cylindrical. “It still looks exactly like his work,” says Goodsell.
For all the drama of Ando’s bold forms, anticipation is key. Entering an Ando building often requires “an act of will,” writes Philippe Gaudioux in Ando’s massive new study. The compact MPavilion is no exception. When viewed from the opposite side of the new vehicle, the 14.4-metre-long square wing with its circular aluminium-clad roof has no obvious entrance. Once the building is located, visitors must walk through a long corridor on either side of the square concrete building.
“You don’t get everything up front,” Godsell explains. “When you get to the entry point, you see that there’s a patio and a bench. At the bench, you see that it’s not just a patio but a canopy roof in the water. Part of the real fun of this experience is that it’s discovered, not obvious.”
A late engineering challenge for the project was to add two narrow, 16.8-metre-long horizontal slits running north into the city and south into the gardens, heightening the anticipation. “It is like an open door, a portal through which one’s inner world expands endlessly and merges with others,” says Ando. “While many consider me a modern minimalist, I enjoy adding that extra touch that makes people happy.”
Nature is central to achieving this sense of joy in all of Ando’s work. Light dances across its concrete interiors through windows or reflects on pools of water. Perhaps the most famous Ando building is the Church of Light in Osaka, which derives its name and fame from the transparent cruciform shape in its concrete wall that allows the light of the world to enter the interior, in a manner similar to a transfiguration.
“My design for MPavilion aims to create a space in harmony with nature,” says Ando. “It surrounds, reflects, and invites nature in. The reflecting pool inside the MPavilion reflects the large circular canopy of the pavilion, as well as the sky, the city skyline and the trees of the park. The circular canopy of the pavilion creates spaces to see the sky and trees. I hope people will find a sense of timelessness in this oasis.”
This openness to nature owes as much to the Japanese walled garden as to the skylight in the Pantheon in Rome – which Ando incorporated into his striking building, the 1976 Azuma-rō House, in Osaka.
“The Sumiyoshi Row House requires that the building be confronted with nature,” explains Godsell. “To get to this little building, you have to at some point go out into the courtyard and re-enter the building. You can’t do it all incognito. You have to suffer the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. And by doing that, Ando creates this little universe.” In the building, it is poetic and radical at the same time.
“It’s a radical rethinking of how we interact with nature through architecture in an urban context. I’ve happily stolen that into a number of buildings to ‘rehumanize’ for our clients.”
Ironically for a self-taught architect, Ando has given guest lectures at the universities of Tokyo, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. Perhaps closer to his principle of self-learning, Ando helped sponsor and design a children’s library in Osaka. Outside, in stark contrast to its concrete building, is a statue of a bright green apple. For Ando, the fruit is symbolic.
“The key to a long, healthy life is curiosity,” he says. “We need to be curious and we must be willing to challenge ourselves. Work for the green apple.”
Whether an apple appears ringside at the MPavilion, the building and its five-month program of events are sure to attract the curious.
Tadao Ando: M-PavilionQueen Victoria Gardens, St Kilda Road Melbourne, 16 November – 28 March 2024, https://mpavilion.org; XL Ando 1975 – today By Philippe Gaudio, published by Taschen, $200.