Architecture: Architect, enigma, golden touch

Be it a study centre in Germany or a private house in Japan, a building by Tadao Ando is a work of mastery. The Royal Gold Medal for Architecture gains lustre by being his. By Jonathan Glancey

Tadao Ando, recipient of the 1997 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, is one of the world's most enigmatic architects. A boxer before he turned to building, Ando, like Le Corbusier and Sir Edwin Lutyens, two of this century's architect heroes, did not train. He studied, and that is a very different thing.

In the Sixties, Ando travelled extensively. In Europe and the United States, he visited the practices of the architects he had come to admire - Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Lou Kahn first among them - and he examined the ineffably beautiful elemental architecture of North Africa. No aspiring young architect sitting in a university could have learnt more.

If Ando's education was a very old-fashioned one, so in many ways are his incomparable houses, exquisite art galleries and numinous places of worship (all his best buildings are built on a small-scale, and all are in his native Japan). Ando might use the forms and materials of self-consciously Modern architecture (his debt to Le Corbusier, Aalto and Kahn is clear), but his intentions are very different from those of the vast majority of Modern Movement architects.

The beautifully executed small houses he builds for clients willing to have his singular approach to design thrust upon them are refuges from what Ando sees as the banality and aggression of modern civilisation. Each is based around an open-air courtyard, and protected from the outside world by raw concrete walls. These are deliberately rough-textured and tough, as if to say "keep off" to those coming too close. They belie the insuperable calm of the hidden courtyards and the sometimes achingly beautiful rooms that flank them.

This beauty is not necessarily a comfortable one. Ando's approach to architecture is elemental, and his clients must be expected to suffer for beauty. Bathrooms and lavatories, for example, may have to be reached across exposed courtyards on rainy days or bitterly cold winter nights.

The British, obsessed with comfort and security, are ill-prepared to understand the ancient Japanese concept of gaman, or endurance. This is a samurai virtue and Ando, an unabashed pugilist (ask his staff if you are in doubt) is a medieval warrior in the unlikely guise of a Modern architect. Those who commission a house from Ando can console themselves that they are investing in great art, but must remember not to drink too much green tea before retiring to bed on a cold winter's night.

To live in an Ando house is a privilege reserved for the wealthy middle classes. He knows well that one of the curious features of the aesthetically inclined members of the middle classes is that they hanker for the primitive, for raw experiences, for escape from the smart, risk-free world they have created for themselves. While unwilling to take real risks, they indulge in the vicarious thrill of contemporary art, Minimalist interiors, exotic holidays, difficult restaurants, and, if they are Japanese, a Tadao Ando house.

This raw, almost primitive quality of Ando's approach to architecture is reinforced by his use of concrete and by his workmanlike attention to the buildings he creates. Ando supervises each house, art gallery or place of worship he designs, as if he were a medieval mason or old-fashioned Japanese carpenter.

And like the great masters of traditional Japanese building, he brings light into his designs in ways that few contemporary architects can match. "Architecture", said Le Corbusier, "is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light": Ando brings these elements together masterfully.

His early work, however, did not guarantee the giant strides he has made since towards the Royal Gold Medal. A number of awkward shopping malls in the Kobe area, built in the Seventies are, frankly, not very good. Ando, however, untrained and far from fully formed, had much to learn. Until recently, he has been held in some degree of suspicion by the Japanese architectural establishment. Architects in most of the world are jealous creatures, clinging to their diplomas and professional qualifications as shipwrecked sailors clutch lifebelts. Ando is one of the very few architects at the top of his profession who needs no such buttressing.

Born in Osaka in 1941, Ando set up in practice in his native town in 1969. Aside from the houses, perhaps his very finest buildings have all been places of worship. They include the litany of religious buildings he created on Mount Roko, Kobe (1985-6), the Chapel of Water, Tomamu (1985- 9) and the Church of the Light, Osaka (1987-9). Perhaps this is because what Ando is ultimately looking for is an architecture of solace and removal from the everyday world. His ideal commission would be a monastery, and if this sounds odd, it is worth considering that Le Corbusier's finest, if not his most accessible or beautiful building, is the monastery of La Tourette near Lyon. It is here that Corb found the perfect client: austere, ascetic and other-worldly men who prospered in an architecture free from bourgeois comforts, but washed in godly light.

To date, Ando has not built in Britain, although he was courted by the Tate when it began its process of selecting an architect for the transformation of the redundant Bankside Power Station, Southwark, into the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. The architect did not visit the site, however, and one could see from the drawings he submitted that his commitment lay elsewhere. For those unable to get to Japan, the nearest Ando buildings are the Meditation Space for Unesco (Paris, 1995), a seminar block for Vitra, the Swiss furniture company (Basle, 1993), and the Benetton Research Centre (Treviso, 1991- 2).

It is of no great importance for the future whether Ando builds in Britain or not, but his influence can only increase as he comes to London to receive another of the top international awards that have come his way over the past five years. He is for many young (and perhaps not so young) architects the architect they would like to be. First, though, they should learn to box (and box clever), consign those baroque diplomas adorning studio walls to their Muji wastepaper baskets, and find clients who wish to experience a little gaman in their soft and comfortable lives. Ando is a great architect, but he will never be a comfortable onen

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