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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Tadao Ando: Against the Odds

Jun. 11, 2015

Tadao Ando is one of Japan’s most successful architects. He is entirely self-taught. A former boxer, he is a winner of the architecture world’s top honor, the Pritzker Prize. NHK World's Minori Takao met him for Newsroom Tokyo.

Ando is known for his use of bare concrete, but he also utilizes nature. He designed a concrete church in Osaka in which sunlight seeps through slits in the shape of a cross.

He made an art museum in Venice by adding his signature concrete to the interior of a centuries-old brick building. And he designed an opera house in Shanghai that looks like it’s floating on nearby water.

Ando has his critics. He led the team that chose the design and the architects for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic stadium. Some say the stadium is too big, and too expensive. But Ando says he thinks it will stimulate the capital.

Ando has always been up for a challenge. Recently he is tackling some of his biggest obstacles yet. He’s had several major surgeries for cancer. But he’s not letting this slow him down.

We accompanied the architect on a recent trip to northern Japan. He made the journey to view a tunnel he designed for a Buddha statue. “This will last 100 or 200 years!” he said proudly. It was his first trip to the site since he underwent a major operation last summer. Ando was diagnosed with cancer, and first had his gallbladder and duodenum removed. Then, more cancer turned up, and his pancreas and spleen were taken out. He still goes for regular checkups, and takes medication.

He draws inspiration from his fight against illness. “I asked my doctor if anyone has ever maintained his strength after losing his pancreas and spleen,” he says. “The doctor said, patients have stayed alive, but no one’s kept the same strength he had before. So he told me to become a model of recovery.”

We asked him how he felt, when deciding to have the surgery, about knowing he may not recover. He said, “People live as long as they’re meant to. So, we might as well make every effort we can, until we die.”

One of Ando’s pet projects is on the island of Naoshima in Japan’s inland sea. He has been working on it for almost 30 years. He designed a museum there. Recently, he is focused on preserving the island’s heritage.

A one-hundred-year old traditional wooden house is one example. Many structures of this type line the narrow streets. Parts of the roof and pillars had grown old, but Ando saved as much as he could. He added concrete walls and modern designs inside. The house should now be good for another hundred years.

“By valuing and preserving old buildings, and creating architecture that is unique to a place, we can create an environment that can only be experienced in a particular locale,” he says.

The architect is also creating a forest on the island. Planting cherry trees is another way for him to influence the environment.

Decades ago, Naoshima suffered from heavy pollution. Factories emitted so much industrial waste the hills turned bare. Ando’s plan calls for the planting of 300 cherry blossom trees. He hopes they will be a symbol of hope for the future.

“Architecture isn’t durable, it decays with time. But nature will expand, if treated with respect and care,” he says. “I want the children of this island to grow up seeing cherry blossoms.”

Another of Ando’s projects is the education of young people. His office is full of up-and-coming architects. Whenever he calls them over, they ready themselves for some tough love. When we visited, he looked over the youngsters’ designs and berated one for making a shelf too thin.

“You don’t have common sense,” said Ando forcefully.

Of course, architectural skills are only part of what he’s passing on in these sessions. Ando wants his followers to understand his approach to work, and life. He uses various means to deliver his message. We asked him about a couple of rubber stamps on his desk, with phrases in bold Chinese characters. “One means, ‘Incompetent’. The other one means, ‘Get out’,” he said. “If anyone brings something to me I feel is useless, I put a stamp on it.”

Ando also lectures students around the country. He does this as a volunteer. We witnessed one event attended by hundreds of young people from Japan and abroad. Ando stressed the importance of thinking globally. “Japanese students like to play it safe,” he told them. “But you have to face the future and not get too comfortable. Uncertainty will be your biggest strength.”

A female student from Indonesia said the talk was inspiring and would help her in her research. A young Japanese woman said Ando’s message made her realize that by tackling something head-on, one can move others.

After the talk, he signed copies of his books. As he maintains his own forward motion, he encourages the next generation to do the same.

“Just being alive isn’t sufficient,” he told us. “You have to enjoy it. Young people need to find the desire to do things that are exciting and new. And they must consider whether society will be inspired by what they do.”

Minori Takao spoke to Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio about her meeting with Ando.

Beppu: Minori, how is Ando coping with his condition?

Takao: Well, if you follow him around for a day, you’ll find out just how packed his schedule is. When we were in Naoshima, he did 4 symposiums in a single day, each about an hour long. I had to struggle to keep up with him.

Shibuya: I can’t forget what he said about the power of nature versus architecture -- that architecture isn’t durable but trees are. And he’s an architect! Why does he place so much importance on nature?

Takao: Ando actually came up with a plan to transform a huge landfill in Tokyo Bay into a brand new forest. He says projects like this are as important to him these days as designing buildings. Such projects as restoring old structures and educating young people are some of the ways Ando is laying his own foundations for the future.