Le Corbusier's successor turns concrete into gold

Tadao Ando, a former boxer and self-taught architect, is the recipient of the 1997 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. The award, which is in the gift of the Queen, is organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects and, although it carries no cash prize, like the rival Pritzker (USA), Carlsberg (Denmark) and Praemium Imperiale (Japan) awards, it is widely considered the most prestigious of its kind.

Ando will be unfamiliar to the British public, yet he is without doubt one of the finest architects working in the world today, combining raw power and great emotional and spatial subtlety. He seems incapable, to date, of formulaic commercial hackery: each new building is an exploration of an architecture that is unmistakably his own.

Ando has not built in Britain. He was shortlisted to transform London's redundant Bankside Power Station into the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art, but the token drawings he presented to the judges of the Tate's design competition suggested that his heart was not in the project. He did not even visit the site. The nearest Ando building is the Meditation Space for Unesco (Paris, 1995), followed by a Seminar block for Vitra, the Swiss furniture company (Basle, 1993) and the Bennetton Research Centre (Treviso, 1991-92).

Although a controversial figure at home, where his pugnacious individualism is viewed with some suspicion, Ando was called on to represent his native Japan at the 1992 Seville Expo where he designed the Japanese Pavilion, a memorable fusion of traditional and modern design and construction.

His finest buildings, all in Japan, include the litany of religious buildings he created on Mount Roko, Kobe (1985-86), the Chapel on the Water, Tomamu (1985-89) and the Church of the Light, Osaka (1987-89). "In a world dominated by consumerism", reads the Gold Medal citation, "Ando seeks solace through his architecture in the rediscovery of new relationships between space and light, modern finishes, man and nature. He is called a minimalist, although there is nothing simple about the man. Ando has emerged as something of a creative rebel in his own country although clearly respected as a thoughtful and cultured artist. To the rest of the world he is an architectural hero."

Born in Osaka in 1941, Ando toured some of the great architectural studios of the Sixties in Europe and the United States and looked closely at the beautiful, elemental architecture of North Africa, much as the self-taught Le Corbusier had done, half a century earlier, before setting up practice in his home town in 1969. He is, if any architect is, the natural successor to Le Corbusier, the most inventive and probably this century's greatest architect.

Not surprisingly, Ando has won the other big international prizes - Carlsberg (1992), Pritzker (1995) and Praemium Imperiale (1996). To date he has no serious detractors, but equally he has been tempted to design just one office block, and that for a singular client, establishing instead a career that enables him to take on only those buildings he really wants to design. Ando's has always been the architecture of light and grace; and now it's gold. Jonathan Glancey