Japanese star architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Tadao Ando demonstrates just how few frills excellent architecture needs – und just how much it can signify.

How does a boxer become one of the world’s most famous architects? In case of renowned Japanese master builder Tadao Ando, explanations cover several continents. Instead of learning his trade at a dedicated architecture academy, Ando immersed himself in the discipline’s key cultures, schools, styles, and materials on several trips around the world.

two women looking at the comprehensive exhibition “Endeavors”
A Naoshima model from Ando’s comprehensive exhibition “Endeavors” in Tokyo.
Photo: Kyodo PR

From his first work in 1973, a modest home in his hometown of Osaka, the now 76-year-old has expanded his skills, influence, and professional arena from Japan, where he designed the Tokyo Skytree in 2008, currently the world’s second tallest building, all the way to Europe and the US, where he already won the world’s most prestigious architecture award, the Pritzker Prize, back in 1995.

For an excellent overview of Ando’s exceptional career, look no further than the “Endeavors” exhibition currently held at the National Art Center in Tokyo, which showcases his extensive life’s work.

The aura of Ando’s buildings

What is it that makes Ando so special? A first-impression explanation of his appeal might sound a tad esoteric, yet is confirmed when you approach one of his works: Ando charges construction with a distinct aura. The effect of his incredibly simple buildings lingers, like the Langen Foundation museum in the German town of Neuss or the Church of the Light in Ibaraki near Tokyo – its end wall forming a crucifix of light.

Langen Foundation at dawn
The Langen Foundation in the German town of Neuss.
Photo: Langen Foundation
architect Tadao Ando in the Church of the Light
Tadao Ando in his Church of the Light in Ibaraki-shi, Japan.
Photo: Nobuyoshi Araki


Yet the ostensible simplicity of Ando’s favored building material, exposed concrete, is extremely deceptive. The gray, untreated material requires exceptional treatment and care during construction and assembly. Any imperfect joint, any visible concrete anchor, can easily destroy the overall impression.

At the same time, Ando also paved new paths in terms of form and style, modeling his concrete slabs after the measurements of Japanese tatami mats made of rushes and rice straw, traditionally used to cover floors or walls. Their timeless 2:1 aspect ratio markedly contributes to the simple, yet utterly harmonious appearance of Japanese architecture, where even room sizes are stated in tatami measurements.

minimalist Koshino House photographed from birds-eye view
The minimalist Koshino House, a residential building in Ashiya-shi, Japan.
Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha

Inspired by Europe and Le Corbusier

When the self-taught architect opened his Tadao Ando Architect & Associates office in Osaka aged 28, he had already soaked up an entirely different architectural tradition. Driven by an early love for Le Corbusier, Ando had traveled to Europe, visiting one stunning architectural example after another.

His tour took him to Paris, Vienna, Moscow, Helsinki, and the Eternal City. He still talks about his mid-1960s visit to the Pantheon in Rome with great enthusiasm.

“I will never forget this impressive moment when strong choir voices helped the wonderful building breathe and shine,” stated Ando in an interview with trade publication Beton. “Architecture is something to be experienced with all five senses – not just the eyes.”

The magic of pure geometry

When Ando talks about building for all senses, he goes way beyond what we’d normally expect of architecture: to fulfill a function, offer protection, and give people a place to be themselves and develop. Maybe that’s also what fuels Ando’s magic: the idea of creating a space that transcends the visible realm.

In the same interview, Ando also mentions the concept of “pure geometry.” His perfectly designed and constructed spaces give people the chance to “notice and rediscover more subconscious elements like light or wind.”

Church on the Water during winter
Near Tomamu, Japan: Ando’s Church on the Water in Hokkaido.
Photo: Yoshio Shiratori

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ando adores the Pantheon, a perfect dome designed to bring the world of the gods all the way down to earth. For almost two millennia, this place of worship has left visitors in awe – and Ando’s works, too, carry a sense of exceptional transtemporality.

It’s an attractive proposition for those who love to transcend boundaries themselves: Two of the world’s best known fashion houses have commissioned buildings by the architect. For Armani, Ando created the brand’s global headquarters in Milan as well as a theater; for Tom Ford, he built several structures on the designer’s iconic Cerro Pelon Ranch in New Mexico, USA.

minimalstic interior created by architect Tadao Ando
Ando’s interiors make use of exposed concrete and clear shapes.
Photo: Roger Hutchings
bordering structures on Tom Ford’s Cerro Pelon Ranch
Adjacent structures on Tom Ford’s Cerro Pelon Ranch in New Mexico, USA.
Photo: www.kevinbobolskygroup.com

Interior and exterior, perfectly balanced

While his minimalist works of spatial art, like the Chichu Art Museum on the southern Japanese island of Naoshima, serve as places of inward-facing, spiritual contemplation, designs like the Tokyo Skytree deliberately address the outside world. The tower’s winding support structure reveals a new dimension: Here, Ando turns towards nature and its inherent principles, translating them to his own work.

the Benesse Museum photographed from bird's-eye view
An aerial view of the Benesse Museum on the Japanese island of Naoshima.
Photo: Mitsuo Matsuoka
the Skytree at night
The Skytree in Tokyo, the second tallest building in the world.
Photo: Flickr/Zengame (CC BY 2.0)


While an old adage states that trees don’t grow all the way to heaven, Ando’s version might just get there. At least in non-material terms, he overrides the boundaries and sheer gravitas of architecture to give visitors a glimpse of something everyone should brave at least once: the journey to our innermost core. With this strong bridge of Japanese tatami and European concrete, the self-educated virtuoso managed to precisely capture – and encapsulate – a very topical thread of the zeitgeist.

inside the Skytree with view of Tokyo
Architecture for the masses: Tokyo as seen from the Skytree.
Photo: Flickr/raneko (CC BY 2.0)