Please build a simple structure in your mind. Start from the ground. Make a window, or some space between solid surfaces where inside receives outside. Outside is “nature,” the elements, light.
Look around; this is your environment. Look out there; that is the environment. Your regard for what’s out there is estimable. But how does the environment regard you? What does outside think of inside? How does nature feel about what you’ve built? You might think nature has already yielded, that the imposition of your structure on a certain site means “the environment” — previously intact? — is sublimated. Or, perhaps you expect nature will eventually overcome your little place. Wind and water will reduce it to dust; this whole project is only temporary.
Nature is indifferent to structure, most of the time. It acquiesces, it co-exists, occasionally it ravages, but nature has no attachment to, no care or disdain for, no opinion of your building at all — most of the time, that is.
How does architecture relate to nature? Reversing the nouns in this question has been part of Tadao Ando’s project for over fifty years. The decorated, self-trained architect, former pro boxer and human being has designed residences, gardens, an insect observation hall, art museums, hospitals and memorials from Japan to Mexico.
“The world is composed of the balance between the artificial (man-made) and the nature,” says Ando, “and if man-made things are claimed to be destruction of nature then there will not be any future for architecture.”
“What’s most important for me when I start with each project is the dialog and the Harmony with the site and the surrounding nature. I try to discover and to bring out the distinct characteristics and special essence of the site through architecture. With such process and ways of thinking, I begin to see the image of the space and the scenery I have experienced overlapping with the site, and the new idea for the architecture might appear.”
In 1986, Ando built a small chapel on Mount Rokkō, a group of mountains in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture. To enter the space, visitors walk a 40 meter tunnel made of matte glass and steel, open at the end not to the chapel — the entrance to this space is inconspicuously set to one side — but to the mountain’s green. A mountain is monumental, but it is also a mountain, a fact, plain and simple. It is not a setting, but begins and ends on its own terms; there would still be a mountain without a tunnel to frame it. As Ando celebrates this sovereignty, he encourages the mountain’s participation with a worthy structure.
The chapel is narrow and tall, closed to the mountain on all sides but one: the left wall is made from four glass panels, divided by a concrete cross. The wall behind the alter sits separate and forward, seemingly independent of the structure at large. Slim gaps on three sides allow natural light to edge in, but the light does not serve to illuminate. Instead, it maintains its autonomy as a welcome guest. The wall becomes subject to this designation from “outside,”appearing as though held in place by the glow.
Ando does not employ light; he invites it. And although light does not necessarily need an invitation, it seems to appreciate a thoughtful and dramatic opportunity to engage. Church of the Light, built in 1989, is famous for providing such a summons in the middle of suburban Ibaraki, Osaka. Like the chapel on Mount Rokkō, the structure is concrete and spare. The church is dark but for the pure white light that bursts through an extrusion in the east wall, forming a crucifix, spanning the length and width of the small church. The balance is between light and dark, but also between light and the structure. Both are required, invited to assert respective but symbiotic presences, so that the totem of contemplation — the cross — and the contemplative space can exist.
“Formality of the building type is not significant for me,” says Ando. “If space where people can confront and reflect on their own mind and feelings is desired [whether] it’s a church, temple, residence or even museum, the way I approach the architecture is all the same.”
“I constantly like to create an original and new space. To explain what I mean by original space, it is a space defined by natural elements which cannot be seen by naked eyes such as light and wind. I search for an original space [that is] appropriate for a specific area and for the specific program. With such a mind process, space for contemplation begins to form.”
Ando built Water Temple in 1991 on Awaji Island in the Hyōgo Prefecture, for the Shingon Buddhist Sect. Where Church of the Light evokes transcendent asceticism, Water Temple manifests elemental suspension, depth, distance and submergence. To approach, visitors must follow a long path through the temple’s former premises and cemetery. A large circular pool filled to its brim punctuates access to the temple surrounds. The pool mirrors the sky and nearby green; all of nature reflected in a single element, at once delimited and boundless. Entrance to the temple begins with a descent, via a concrete stairway, into the centre of the pool. The inner passageway is circuitous, encircling the temple’s sacred centre, the intensity of the walls’ red hue increasing with proximity.
“Human spirits cannot be described plain and simple like in the digital world,” says Ando. “In order to turn from the present atmosphere to an extraordinary space (spiritual space) it requires a transition pace to increase the inner spirituality of each individual.”
In Church on the Water, built in Hokkaido in 1988, contemplative space and atmospheric transition are less definitely demarcated. In fact, contemplation is at-large, drawn outwards from inside the structure by a glass wall overlooking a vast pond, with a mass of trees and grass surrounding. The church’s symbolic focus, the cross, is set at the center of the pond, anchoring vision and pulling it toward the elements. In a sense, this is Church of the Light’s inversion: nature is not channeled or invited in; instead, nature is unrestricted and absorptive, the true space in the space. Here, it is nature who invites visitors out, and the condition of this expansion is that they turn within.
“To transport the human mind as close as it can to nothingness, the stoic representation is appropriate,” Ando says. “When people feel the light, the wind and the breeze from each season in such silent space, people begin to face their own minds.”