A slamming sound followed by a loud, angry voice broke the silence of the night. I turned my head towards the voice. A man in a white shirt holding a thick black binder was about to give another blow to the young man in a construction worker’s uniform and a hard hat. The furious man wasn’t big or tall but had a threatening presence complemented by his thick voice and a strong Osaka accent. Suddenly he turned and approached me. “Are you Fura-san (my pseudonym used in the ’80s)? I’m Tadao Ando.” He politely bowed once and looked at the objects spread all over the empty new building which had been designed by this renowned architect. “They’re beautiful… look like surfboards. Do you surf?”
This was how I first met Tadao Ando in 1984. A month after I had graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts (formerly known as Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music) I was commissioned to design the interior of Ando’s new building in the center of Osaka. Strangely enough, Ando who had been known as the most perfectionist of all architects in the world didn’t bother to meet the young unknown sculptor before giving the opportunity to design the interior of his new building. He had only seen some schematics and a model before the actual sculptural fixtures arrived at Osaka from Tokyo.
Many things I had heard about Tadao Ando was unusual for what one would expect from an architect: the only selftaught architect from Japan to have received worldwide acclaim, a former pro boxer who had fought all over in Asia, an architect who was feared by construction workers, a boss who threw an ashtray to his staffs with master degrees when upset, the architect who almost punched Dr. Peter Eisenman… above all, the most unexpected was his architecture. How would a man with such temper possibly create buildings with such serenity and awe?
Like his twin brother whom he didn’t grow up with under the same roof (Ando was raised by his grandparents), Tadao Ando started to fight professionally when other kids of his age were going to colleges. Later when his brother started graphic design he wanted to do something similar, too. During their early 20’s, the brothers designed most of the night clubs owned by Yamaguchi-gumi, the most powerful crime family (or better known as Yakuzas) in Japanese history. Then Ando gradually picked up small architecture projects neglected by aspiring architects with master degrees. He executed each project with uncompromising attention, even to the tiniest details. Most amazingly this young boxer had an incomparable aesthetic that most Japanese architects at that time couldn’t match. His breakthrough came with the smallest architecture with the smallest budget. The small row house in Sumiyoshi built in 1976 (Azuma House) earned the 34 year old Ando a world-wide recognition.
The following day of my encounter with Tadao Ando I visited his firm. He appeared somehow shy, but his extraordinary willpower could be felt in the air. We spoke about sculpture and architecture. Unfortunately I don’t remember much except his few remarks which has stuck in my mind over the years. One was, “An architecture always needs to be big enough to contain a person, but size is not a parameter in sculpture. A one centimeter sculpture could become a masterpiece.” There was another one, “When I have to build something on a tiny land, I feel like in the square jungle. A small project becomes a life or death matter.” Ando was a genius at bringing out so much out of a small space. He also told me that the life of a building would start after it was built, and he had to take care of the building as long as it stayed. And because of that he wouldn’t want to accept too many projects outside of Osaka.
Today clients and admirers of Tadao Ando include the most powerful figures in various fields of design, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Rolf Fehlbaum (Vitra), just to name few. The scale and budget of each project is often infinite, and the design has become more stylish and elegant than ever. Is there still the hungry fighter? Sadly, I’d say no. As Ando’s bio has become relatively normal and behavior calmer, his architectures started to lose something that his earlier works had used to have. I cannot hear the heartbeat of a fierce fighter from the beautiful mass of concrete any more… or was it just a ghost that I heard when I had my own boiling ambition?