A vision of civilised concrete

An inspiration to other architects, Tadao Ando gives his buildings an almost sacred sense of silence and majesty, says Ian Phillips
You wonder just when Tadao Ando has time to rest. He arrived at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport only three hours ago and came straight to the headquarters of Unesco to inspect the site of his latest creation. Since then, he has already given one interview, blinked his way through a photo session and is in the process of having a heated discussion about the positioning of a plaque. It may be only 8pm in Paris but for Ando, that is the equivalent of four in the morning, and I am told he did not enjoy one moment of in-flight slumber.

He is here for the inauguration of his meditation centre at Unesco, which the organisation has commissioned as part of its 50th birthday celebrations.

The name Ando probably does not mean much to anyone but architectural aficionados. Nor will the general public recognise his short stocky figure, capped by a Beatles haircut that seems stuck in a Sixties time warp. He has not yet built anything in Britain, and the Prayer Hall in Paris is only his fourth project in Europe (after the Japanese pavilion at Seville 92, a Seminar House for VITRA in Basle and an artistic research centre for Benetton at Treviso in Italy).

In his native Japan, however, Ando has something close to a monopoly on building museums (eight in the past six years) and for those in the know, the 54-year-old sits high in the architectural firmament. Just in case he does need official recognition, he picked up the Pritzker Prize - generally referred to as the Nobel of architecture - earlier this year.

The reaction of Sir Norman Foster is typical. "I have a tremendous admiration and respect for Ando and his work," he says. "He is a continuing inspiration to all of us, not only architects." Indeed, the respect he commands is not limited to architectural circles. I was told by Ando's interpreter that Karl Lagerfeld is "in love" with him. While this may be overstating the case, the Chanel designer is said to have immense regard for him and even made a rare public appearance at the inauguration ceremony last Wednesday.

His success is largely due to his unique architectural vision, which lends his buildings an almost sacred sense of silence and majesty. Concrete plaques, each with six holes into which the moulding board is driven during construction, have become his trademark and made him the king of concrete. "For 20 years, I have asked myself if it were possible to make a delicate, subtle concrete that the Japanese could get used to," Ando says and, in his hands, the mundane material has taken on a solemn beauty. "It exudes such elegance, heroism and subtlety," says Issey Miyake, his close friend, while Renzo Piano believes that, "Ando is capable of giving concrete life."

His work is also marked by a fondness for geometry. Many of his buildings are slightly austere boxes from the outside, but the apparent simplicity belies immense complexity. In 1975, he turned house design on its head with Row House in Sumiyoshi. "The house must have seemed outrageous," he now admits, "and when the work was published, it met a barrage of criticism." However, it eventually gained him immense acclaim and the disposition of the rooms is nothing if not original. All living spaces face an inner open courtyard, which has to be crossed when going from bedroom to toilet.

Ando has even said "It would suit me best to build houses without roofs." This seemingly preposterous idea comes from his wish that "through my architecture, I would like to contribute to people feeling more deeply rooted in nature". The possibility of being rained upon while watching EastEnders in your living room may be going too far, but the elements are ever-present in other ways.

His water temple, an annex to a Buddhist sanctuary on the Japanese island of Awajishima, is sealed from above by an oval pond of waterlilies. His Museum of Children and his Church on the Water both sit on the edge of lakes and some of his houses are half-buried to bring them closer to the earth.

The most important element of nature in his work, however, is light. Its complex and stunning effects bring a warmth and radiance to his otherwise stark interiors. Carefully controlled amounts of light flood in through huge windows or seep through large lists in the wall and skylights. Nowhere is this more startling than in his Church of the Light into which light pours through a cross cut in the end of the wall.

The new meditation centre is no exception to the Ando rules. Made out of his trademark concrete, it lets in light through a gap between the roof and the walls. It is surrounded by a shallow pond and, this time, the simple geometric form chosen is a cylinder. The whole is decidedly Zen. "I wanted to express 'nothingness'," Ando claims, "and to create a space in which, once inside, people feel that it is ridiculous to fight among themselves." Indeed, it is intended to be a space where people from all religions and races can come to meditate and pray for peace; and it is a reminder of the atrocities of war: stones exposed to the Hiroshima bomb have been used for the floor.

Ando's individual style is almost certainly due to his lack of formal training. He claims to have learned his trade by reading, tracing plans out of books and by visiting architectural masterpieces in Japan and throughout Europe. The fact that he had no one with whom he could discuss architecture at that time apparently still makes it hard for him to talk about the subject. When I ask him my first question about whether he agrees that his architecture is "radical," he simply blows his lips and decides to pass.

His reserve quite frustratingly extends to other areas of conversation. Despite coaxing, he declines to name the contemporary architects he most admires and when asked if his short career as a professional boxer during his youth was successful, he lamely says he cannot remember. Yet he is capable of adopting this rather distant attitude with those he does not know one minute, then guffawing with laughter and exchanging jokes with his colleagues the next.

What is known of his past is that he was born in Osaka in 1941 and was separated at birth from his mother and identical twin brother, and was raised as a single child by his grandmother. Creativity seems to have been in the genes, as his brother is now a successful illustrator and Ando traces his love of architecture back to helping to build an extension to his home as an adolescent. He built his first house at the age of 15. "Two doors away, a 15-year-old boy lost both his parents and was allowed to build a house on a wasteland," he explains. "I drew up the plans, we collected scrap and two months later it was finished."

In the early Sixties he discovered Le Corbusier and, in 1965, set off to meet the master. He took the trans-Siberian train across Russia and arrived in Paris in late September. A month too late. The great French architect had died on 27 August. Undaunted, he decided to "meet" him through his architecture and today says that "to compensate for not meeting him at that time, I now have a dog at my offices called Corbusier, who always stays by my side".

Ando set up his own company in 1969 and today Corbusier looks over the team of 20 architects in his Osaka headquarters, in which silence and discipline are the watchwords. Perfection is also dear to his heart and he is known to tolerate nothing but the best. At times, this can become extreme. At an exhibition dedicated to his work a few years ago at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, he found the carpet dirty and got down on his hands and knees with masking tape to pick up the dust. He admits his intransigence can cause friction, but prefers this approach to a "lukewarm compromise".

"I think the design of public buildings as well as houses ought to be the province of guerrillas," he says. "That is, people who have minds of their own. I think I've done fairly well as an acknowledged guerrilla for the past 25 years." He claims, however, he still has difficulty getting his ideas accepted in Japan, and is especially outspoken about that country's urban architecture. "The Japanese city is an industrial centre whose priority is given to the economy," he says. "Since the Second World War, the really crucial things - the lives of human beings - have been given little weight." It comes as no surprise that the only contemporary Japanese architecture he admires is the early work of Kenzo Tange. Yet, despite his Western influences, he still feels there is something "essentially Japanese" about his work.

Ando recently took it upon himself to propose a more humane model for the rebuilding of the quaked city of Kobe, at the centre of which lie what he calls "true" housing complexes. These consist of apartments that maintain an individual character, but which share facilities so people are brought together. An example is his complex at Rokko, where the swimming pool is open to neighbouring residents in consideration of their co-operation during the construction work.

When the work-mad Ando has time to sit by the pool is anyone's guess. In his spare time he likes to travel - "to see all the architecture I have not yet seen"; the day after our interview, he flew to Nimes before returning to Paris for the inauguration of the meditation centre. Maybe he just never rests.