top of page
  • John Barr

Tadao Ando : Romanesque Architect

Tadao Ando is one of the most famous Japanese architects, possibly the most famous Japanese architect, of the modern era. But Ando's work is neither modern nor Japanese. Specifically, I will argue that Ando's work is Romanesque in character.

Romanesque is the name given to a pan-European style that developed around the 11th century. It is essentially Western European, although with some Byzantine influences. But then Ando is essentially a Western architect, although with some Japanese influences.

In my previous post, MOMA Kamakura ; The Last Japanese Building, I argued that Japanese architecture was traditionally light and thin and when modernist Japanese architects followed Corbusier and produced increasingly massive buildings they moved away from their Japanese roots and towards Westernism. Ando’s work continues that trend.

The influence of Corbusier on Ando’s work is acknowledged but the influence of Louis Kahn seems to me far greater, as does, to some extent, the influence of Luis Barragan. Broadly speaking Corbusier’s is an architecture of the frame whilst Kahn’s and Barragan’s is an architecture of the wall. Ando’s is also an architecture of the wall. And Romanesque is almost defined as an architecture of the wall.

In contrast with both the preceding Roman and later Gothic architecture in which the load bearing structural members are, or appear to be, columns, pilasters, and arches. Romanesque architecture, in common with Byzantine architecture, relies upon its walls… New World Encyclopaedia

Row House Sumiyoshi, Osaka, Tadao Ando, 1976.

The project that first brought Ando to the attention of the architectural community in Japan uses walls to create a private world within the city. Its austere symmetrical facade with its single opening is absolutely Romanesque in character.

Kahn has described his interest in, and inspiration from, ancient forms of architecture, and the muscular and direct expression of geometric form generated by this approach is evident in his work and equally so in Ando’s. Romanesque is the last historical period to exhibit these qualities, before the structural gymnastics and tracery of the Gothic, before the effete refinement of the Renaissance.

And so I say Ando is a Romanesque architect: for his use of the wall; for his use of simple, powerful geometric forms; for the absence of structural gymnastics and tracery; for an avoidance of effete refinement.

Water Temple, Tsuna, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 1991.

The wall and nothing but the wall.

The use of the term Romanesque to describe the pan-European architectural style of the (roughly) 10th to 12th centuries first appeared in the 19th century, when the French archaeologist Charles de Gerville, in a letter to his fellow archaeologist August le Prevost, wrote:

I have sometimes spoken to you about Romanesque architecture. It is a word of my own invention….this architecture, heavy and rough, is the opus romanum, successively degraded by our rude ancestors. So too, out of the crippled Latin language, was made this Romance language

In de Gerville’s view the Romance languages were degenerated forms of Latin and Romanesque was an unsophisticated and debased form of Roman architecture. The condescension implied in that description is something that I think Ando would relish. It would fit nicely with his image as an establishment outsider and with the mythologizing of his early career: the self-taught ex-boxer from Osaka.

Children's Museum, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 1989.

'This architecture, heavy and rough...' Charles de Gerville

Barragan's influence is evident in the freestanding walls and in the use of water.

There are other ways in which Ando adopts, or imposes, a Romanesque approach. Unlike the periods of empire that preceded it and the periods of international trade that followed it, Romanesque architecture relied on a limited palette of local materials, which varied from region to region. Ando also adopts, or imposes, a limited palette of materials. The obvious example is his use of exposed concrete to form the entire building envelope, but examination of his buildings reveals a much wider standardisation. With very few exceptions Ando uses the same components and internal finishes on all his projects: the same window frames, the same doors, the same ironmongery, the same downpipes, the same ventilation cowls, the same flat-bar steel handrails, the same fixtures and fittings. There are possibly more books and articles published on Ando than any other architect, and yet this is an aspect of his work that has been overlooked. But it is intrinsic to both his architecture and to his design methodology.

Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 2001.

Ando's standard exposed concrete used to create sculpted space, but also Ando's standard flat-bar steel handrail.

There are a number of potential explanations for this standardisation. Many ordinary Japanese might attribute it to Ando's roots in Osaka. Within Japan Osaka has the reputation of being the merchant city, and the citizens of Osaka have a reputation for viewing everything from the point of view of profit and loss. And this might be what drives Ando’s strategy in this respect. There is no doubt that there must be a substantial saving in time from adopting such a standardised approach.

But there is another possible explanation, certainly another set of advantages to be gained. By restricting himself to a limited palette of materials, in effect one major construction material plus a set of standardised components and finishes, Ando aligns himself with the master builders of the past who, through necessity, worked with a similar set of constraints. This resulted in deep knowledge of their materials and an incremental refinement of construction methods and detailing.

But perhaps the greatest consequence, and one that is apparent in Ando’s designs, is that it frees him from all those decisions. He doesn’t spend time considering the multitude of possible materials, components and finishes available today and agonising over those choices. He doesn’t have to worry about the comprehensive specification and detailing of new materials. He has his palette of materials; he has built up and can incrementally refine his specification and detailing. And this leaves him free to consider only the issues that apparently interest him and drive his designs: how best to assemble his chosen palette to create form and space; to control light and aspect; to form a processional route of discovery.

Chapel on Mount Rokko, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 1986.

A simple basilica and campanile but with the addition of a tangential approach through a glazed loggia that reinterprets the arcade of torii that often marks the approach to Shinto shrines.

College of Nursing, Art and Science, Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 1993

Walls used to create a procession of geometric forms.

Chikatsu-Asuka Museum, Minamikawachi, Osaka, Tadao Ando, 1994.

Monolithic monumentality rarely seen since the Romanesque period.

Rokko Housing 1, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 1983.

Simple, repetitive forms stacked up to create complexity.

Rokko Housing 1, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 1983.

Walls, geometric forms and light brought together to create syncopation.

Sayamaike Historical Museum, Osakasayama, Osaka, Tada Ando, 2001.

"Such things as light and wind only have meaning when they are introduced inside a house in a form cut off from the outside world. The isolated fragments of light and air suggest the entire natural world. The forms I have created have altered and acquired meaning through elementary nature (light and air) that give indications of the passage of time and the changing of the seasons..." Tadao Ando

Barragan's influence is again evident in this creation of an enclosed courtyard from which the only view is the sky.

Sayamaike Historical Museum, Osakasayama, Osaka, Tada Ando, 2001.

A rare departure: a frame with infill panels.

Awaji Yumebutai, Tsuna, Hyogo Prefecture, Tadao Ando, 1999.

The fragment of walkway and column, along with the rare use of stone, suggests the remains of a pre-existing architecture, another point of contact with Romanesque, which often incorporated found fragments of buildings from previous civilisations. And in another departure, whilst the cantilevered walkway uses Ando's standard flat-bar steel handrail, the sloping walls of the stairs and ramps display fat, tubular handrails that may be a reference to James Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (1984), a project that plunders the past for references.

Church of the Light, Ibaraki, Osaka, Tadao Ando, 1989.

Walls and light used to create narrative.

I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life

John 8:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:1

Standardisation and re-use are intrinsic elements in Ando’s methodology, and they are not restricted to his use of materials and components. Ando will often re-use ideas and solutions from one design in another. Indeed whole elements of one design may reappear in another. It’s as if, having found the solution to a particular design issue, or set of issues, he sees no need to deviate from that solution when faced with the same set of issues again. It’s the same strategy working at different scales. Having settled on a handrail design, why invent another one merely to be different? Similarly, having settled on a solution to a particular planning or design problem, why invent another one merely to be different? Better to build incrementally on what already exists. It is perhaps in his rejection of the modern preoccupation with ‘originality’ or ‘invention’ that often results in mere idiosyncrasy that Ando aligns himself most closely with the master builders of the past.

Note: An exception to the above is the handful of timber buildings that Ando has designed. These are overtly Japanese in their references and include:

* Kara-za Moveable Theatre, 1987

* Japan Pavilion, Expo '92, Seville, 1992

* Museum of Wood, Mikata, Hyogo Prefecture, 1994

* Komyo-ji Temple, Saijo, Ehime Prefecture, 2000

* Minami-dera, Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, 2002

bottom of page