NEW YORK – How Tadao Ando gave up a boxing career to become a self-taught architect is a story in itself, but the fact that he has found steady work through the ever-edgy Benetton Group SpA seems to tie the ends together.
“My life is full of accidental meetings. I just live freely and I don’t worry about the boundaries. I go beyond the boundaries,” Ando explained through a translator during a conversation with Benetton’s vice chairman Alessandro Benetton last month at the New York Public Library’s Trustees’ Room.
Mark Wigley, Columbia University’s dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, moderated the discussion, which was presented by the nonprofit group Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Anyone familiar with Benetton’s advertising – which often embraces controversial themes like AIDS, racism and exhibitionism – knows the brand has a tendency to push boundaries. In 1992, Luciano Benetton recruited Ando to work on Fabrica, the brand’s communications research center in Ponzano, Italy, where young people from different countries and art disciplines collaborate. Ando then made himself even more at home with the Benetton family by designing the “Invisible House,” a personal home for Alessandro Benetton in Ponzano.
Alessandro Benetton recalled how his father, Luciano, commissioned the then-unproven architects Afra Bianchin and Tobia Scarpa to design the company’s knitwear factory in 1964 – a move that was “quite daring” at that time, he said. Community and architecture – especially supporting young talent – remain cornerstones for the company, said Benetton, who is also chairman and founder of 21 Investimenti SpA. The company was so pleased with the factory that its new plant in Tunisia was designed in the same vein by in-house architects.
Ando’s connection with Benetton was years in the making. As a high school student in Osaka, Japan, he earned some extra cash boxing and thought “it was a great thing to get money just by fighting.” At the age of 14, he embarked on another course when the carpenter, who lived next door, convinced Ando to help build an addition on a house. Ando was so taken by the experience that he began reading architecture books in a used bookstore because he could not afford to buy them. By his early 20s, he was off on a grand tour of Europe, Africa and the U.S., visiting buildings designed by Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn.
Once back in Osaka, he founded Tadao Ando Architect & Assoc., which is now a 27-person operation. In the firm’s early days, he took it upon himself to present a proposal to city planners. Rooftop gardens on buildings and more municipal green spaces – something architects like David Rockwell expect will become more prevalent in the next few years – were paramount in Ando’s plan for Osaka more than 35 years ago.
But city officials told Ando, “Your proposal is interesting but you are very young. And if you continue to come back to us, it will be breaking and entry.” He laughed, “But 10 years later, I went back.”
Considering his unconventional route to an architectural career, Ando’s admiration for an 85-year-old painter who hangs from the ceiling to paint with his feet seems understandable. Another personal favorite he singled out was the late Kenzo Tange’s designs for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo – something Ando said represented the country’s traditions and technology, as well as having a sculptural quality and capturing Japan’s spirit.
His office building in Osaka has five floors above the ground and four stories below. Ando said his desk is strategically placed near the kitchen’s entrance, which deters his staff from eating lunch. “Our work is really like guerrilla warfare. An idea is not enough. We have to plan for it, strategize and have some luck.” he said. “My single belief is that architecture is not about a single person. We need many many people.”
Including nature in architectural design – a fundamental practice in Japan – is another priority, Ando said. In addition, architects need to remind themselves that everything that they build is for living creatures. As testimony to that, Ando once bought a house he designed and expanded for a client – after the client had lived there for several years – to get a better understanding of how his creation actually worked.
“Now we live in a digitalized world. We don’t always think about the little things like living.”