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Tadao Ando Talk Asia Interview

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OSAKA, Japan (CNN) -- AR: Anjali Rao
TA: Tadao Ando

AR: Hi I'm Anjali Rao in Osaka with more of our special series, this is TALK ASIA.

For more than 30 years, Tadao Ando's mission has been to mix beauty and practicality resulting in his place as one of Japan's most important architects.

Japanese architecture is very much supported with the sense of nature of Japan and by the Japanese people.

From Manhattan to Texas, Paris to Milan and back to Osaka, Ando's work is commissioned by the most discerning and the fashionable. He's also dealt with crisis following the deadly disaster that was the Kobe earthquake.

TA: I had 35 buildings which I designed in that area. Fortunately none of the buildings had cracks or fell down.

Self taught, Ando tells us all about his unusual path to the top as he gives us a tour of his magnificent Church of Light.

AR: Mr. Ando, welcome to Talk Asia. Now this is arguably your most revered work. Tell us about it and what this place means to you?

TA: This was built around 20 years ago and we knew from the beginning that they only had a small budget. But the people who come to this church are very devoted. I was asked to create a place where people can put their hearts together. You can see light come through from the outside - and I made this cross of light in the hopes that people's souls and minds can be united by the light through the cross.

These chairs and this floor are made of scaffold boards - material used on a construction site. Such materials can turn out to be very attractive, depending on the way you use them. The wall of concrete was kept the way it was when it was finished, and as the light comes in, it richly changes its expression. I wanted to build architecture with a low budget, but rich in character.

As you can see, the light comes through until here, straight. I believe that architecture is fundamentally a public space where people can gather and communicate, think about the history, think about the lives of human beings, or the world. I believe all architecture creates a place like that. All architecture has a public nature, I believe, so I would like to make a public space.

AR: Yes, because people come here, don't they, and they fill these pews to worship their God in a place that you dreamt up. Does that not strike you as completely mind-blowing?

TA: This is the place where you can use five senses to think. For example, you can sense by seeing people in the light, you can sense by hearing the sound and echo, and you can feel the atmosphere. The best time to see this place is when people are here singing hymns.

AR: The Church of Light was completed in 1989 though; since then you've designed an extraordinary number of projects around the world. How do you keep coming up with idea after idea?

TA: I just returned from Italy yesterday. In Italy, there are so many significant architectural structures in history such as the Pantheon in Rome, or the Duomo. Italy is full of historical buildings. And Europe holds a great history of philosophy from Greece until today. I read all those books and see these buildings, and I think of where I stand when I design my architecture. I think of the past and the future as well as the present to determine where I am, and I move on while thinking of these things.

AR: Mr Ando, you have recently remodeled the Palazzo Gracci in Venice and you've also designed the Museum of Modern Art previously in Fort Worth in Texas. What's it like to travel the world putting your stamp on places which are synonymous with beautiful buildings?

TA: The Palzzo Grassi in Venice was built in the 18th century and it was originally a museum. The plan was to remodel it as a museum again. So I thought that this could have a huge cultural significance because with one visit, a visitor would see contemporary art, as well as an 18th century building, and they would also be very conscious of being in Venice.

The museum in Fort Worth... You know... Fort Worth does not have a center in the town. The city wanted to use a modern art museum there to be the center of the community. But Fort Worth is a city like a desert, so we had to irrigate the land, make a forest, then we built the architecture. I would like it to be a place where people can come on Sunday like my Church of Light, and have people communicate there.

AR: How personally attached do you get to your projects?

TA: All those involved in the construction of an architectural design, from the architect to the builder, have an attachment to the architecture, although it's difficult to quantify the attachment. It usually takes 10 years to complete a building. For example, it took eight years to finalize the Fort Worth museum. I had a lot of emotion, a lot of attachment to that architecture during the whole process.

Japanese architecture is recognized all throughout the world. How much of it though influences your designs?

Japanese architecture is very much supported by the sense of nature of Japan and by the Japanese people. In the West, they build an independent architecture by isolating it from nature. But in the case of Japanese architecture, as you can see like in this building, it integrates with nature by having a space that cannot be distinguished whether it's outside or inside. Since I am a Japanese man who's been building through the experience of Japanese architecture, my actual designs come from Japanese architectural concepts, although they're based on western methods and materials.

Up next, from model planes to architecture's most coveted prize, and everything in between.

TA: I think this prize means that people have approved of what I created, with the help of many people.


AR: Before you created this beautiful Church of Light, before you were even an architect, you had another profession. You were a boxer. Tell us about your life before you put pen to paper.

TA: Every time I go abroad, people always ask me if I'm really self-taught in architecture. It is true that I have not received any special education in my field. I visited Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya to see architecture there, and I visited Europe as well to study architecture by myself. I read a lot and I learnt a lot because I was motivated to study architecture, and eventually I got my license. I was also a boxer, as you said, but that was because there was a boxing gym near my home so I gave that a try. What I learned from boxing was that no one would help me during a fight. In architecture, nobody helps me to think. But when it comes to the actual building process, I work with lots of people in cooperation. I learned how to work both ways.

AR: Talking of the past, when you were a kid, you used to spend a lot of time making model planes and boats out of wood and you were also picking up any tip you could from the carpenter who lived across the road from you. How great an influence was he on you?

TA: Times have changed and everything can be done through computers nowadays. When I was a kid, it wasn't like that. We used to see the work of carpenters and I would watch the woodwork by my neighbors, and I tried to do some woodworking myself, draw something with my own hands, and listening to sound and music. In the real world through all these things, I guess I was able to learn how to think for myself. But the influence of these experiences doesn't appear instantly. It's like nutrition -- you never know how it will affect you in the future. But I think it's very important to feed this type of nutrition to today's children when they're still young.

AR: Being self-taught in architecture though is almost unheard of, you know. So many in your profession, though even after years and years of study, when they try and get into this business, they struggle for a very long time to make it if they make it at all. You don't seem to have had any such difficulty. Why do you think that is?

TA: I'm still struggling. I always worry what my next project will be or how it will work out. So I'm struggling all of the time.

AR: It doesn't look like you are struggling; I mean, you won the Pritzker Prize, which is the award that every architect in the world wants to win. Is it strange for you to think of, you know, this guy who finished his education much earlier than most walking away with such an honor.

TA: I prefer not to talk about the Prize.

I'm living my life in the now, and what is important is that I am continuing to create. I don't care about the prize in the past. I'm always looking towards my next building.

AR: Surely that must have been a source of great pride for you?

TA: I think this Prize means that people have approved of what I created with the help of many people. In that sense I'm proud to have this Prize.

AR: Architecture is a competitive business. You know, it seems that at the moment architects always all over the world are trying to out-design each other to make something bigger than previous person, at least better than the previous person, and a lot of seems to come down to money. How then does artistry fit in to all this? Is it taking a back seat?

TA: Architecture is an art and at the same time it is reality. The reality includes functions and costs. In the art world, paintings and sculpture don't have to do with function and cost. In that sense, we have to think of both artistic expression and the reality such as functions and the cost when we make architecture. Architecture has to stand for 100 or 200 years, and in that sense, it is a public entity. Think about walking on streets -- wherever you go, you see buildings. Considering the public nature of architecture, we must tackle architectural design very seriously.

AR: It's interesting that you should bring that up because when you were starting out you were very interested in America's foremost architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and it now seems that his buildings are cracking, and they've got leaks throughout them as well, they have not stood the test of time, structurally speaking. How do you ensure that yours will stand the test of the time?

TA: Well, I haven't lived as long as Frank Lloyd Wright. When a major earthquake struck the area of Kansai/Kobe on January 17th 1995, I had 35 buildings which I designed in that area. Fortunately no buildings got cracks or fell down. I hope that they'll survive years from now. In order to keep a building in good condition, what should we do? Maintenance is very important. There is a Japanese traditional custom called 'major clean-up', where we clean up thoroughly once a year. However, when modern architecture came into place, people began to forget the once-a-year maintenance. If we remember this custom again and conduct major maintenance once a year, our buildings will be able to stand forever.

AR: Kobe was just flattened, so terribly affected by the earthquake in 1995; as you said your buildings escaped pretty much without a scratch. How do you explain that?

TA: We had anticipated that there would be an earthquake one day in this area. So we factored in that anticipation during our structural design. That's one reason.

AR: You were also involved in the reconstruction of Kobe after the earthquake. What sort of a challenge was that for you?

TA: I've been doing that for 10 years. The first thing I considered was how to build a network with the people of the devastated area and to create the future with them. I did some fundraising to support orphans because the earthquake left many kids without parents. Also I've been working on projects to make sure people continue to remember the victims. The scenery of the area was destroyed, so we planted white flowers, 300,000 magnolia trees, hoping that those trees can be a psychological support for the people left behind so that they can live together hand in hand. That's what we've been doing the past 10 years.

AR: Of course as we know, Japan is earthquake-prone, which makes it all the more disturbing that the architect Hidetsugu Aneha has admitted to falsifying data and lying about the strength of his buildings in order to try and conserve money on materials. What did you think when you heard that?

TA: That was an extreme case of negligence and there was a small number of people who did this. But most people who are involved in architecture are working in good faith. At the Issei Miyake project, which you'll be seeing soon, all are working in a very serious manner, and they're the majority. In that sense, this case troubled us a lot.

Coming up, Olympic dreams -- Tadao Ando's vision for Tokyo 2016

TA: So what I came up with was a big forest over Tokyo Bay -- a forest on the sea.


TA: There were three big trees and another one here and I tried to preserve them as they were when I built this church.

Now the tree has grown and covers the building. It's not only in Japanese architecture, but nature and architecture have become one here.

When the church was built 20 years ago, those trees were still so short... but now they're matching nicely with the building. I always match the natural elements with something artificial.

AR: Why is nature such an important facet of your work?

TA: We're living on the earth, but now nature is being destroyed by humans. The influence of humans is getting bigger and bigger in this world, there should be a harmony between the artificial world, the natural environment, and human beings. Otherwise, our life won't be sustained. So, with this big tree, we're trying to express an impression that we're living on the earth and at the same time co-existing with nature. When you get inside the church, you see the light and you're able to sense that this church also exists with nature. So through this church, people can realize that they're living within nature.

I built this church hoping that it can be a place where people can come to gather to unite themselves as one, to think about life, to remember that they live together with nature, and to feel happiness sharing the experience with other people.

AR: The preservation of nature is very important to you and you can certainly see that in your use of natural materials in your work. But we do live in an increasingly industrial, increasingly resource-hungry world. Do you sometimes feel like it's a bit of a pointless battle?

TA: If we face reality, the population on the earth is increasing. It was 1 billion in 1900, now it's 6.6 billion, and it could soon be 10 billion people living on this earth. That means we have 10 times more people on the earth and we need more houses and buildings. We must think about how long the materials for buildings and houses will last with all this development. Otherwise the earth could be destroyed.

AR: You look to the U.S. it would seem for much of the blame for the environmental situation now. What's your particular issue with the way that America is operating?

TA: I'm not blaming everything on the U.S. However, one good example could be the Kyoto Protocol that the U.S. has not ratified. I presume that America gives more priority to economic growth than to the environment. I believe that a sound environment is a prerequisite for economic growth.

AR: So let's just talk about some of your future projects then. Tokyo is in the running to host the 2016 Olympics, and you've been tapped to oversee the architectural side of it. It's an enormous task; why is it worth it to you?

TA: Basically, major cities in Asia, in Japan, China or South Korea, have been built in admiration of Western cities like Paris or London. Thinking about it, however, cities in Japan or Asia are different from those in Europe, particularly in climate and culture. So I thought about exploring the possibility of building an Asian city or buildings which have the style of the west, but suitable to Asian climate and culture.

So what I came up with was a big forest over Tokyo Bay -- a forest on the sea. There's reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay and I wanted to create a forest there. Starting with this project, I'd like the people in Japan to recall the importance of nature. And the same time, I'd like to change the way of thinking among Japanese people by trying to create a forest connecting the Imperial Palace and the ministerial district to Omotesando. I'm expecting that it would create a breeze running through the forest. This would make Tokyo a unique city with distinctly Asian features. There's also an earthquake factor too. We'll build facilities to help us defend ourselves from earthquakes.

AR: In the past you've lectured in architecture at both Yale and Harvard, just to name a couple. What are your thoughts on tomorrow's architects? Do you trust them to uphold the artistry and the functionality, and also the environmental preservation that you have tried to promote?

TA: It's the computer era. The computer creates an image -- another environment -- which is different from our real world. In this real world, we have real trees, water, everything. The real world and computer world are different things. However, today's young students have learned about the world through computers. What they need to do now is go out to the real world and experience it in order to create architecture that's rooted in reality. I think it's very difficult.

AR: In which case, do you then foresee the demise of the world's great architectural projects?

TA: You can never know about that for sure. The computer can create a completely different world. And so architecture of the future will be very different because of that. In the last 10 years, everything has changed so rapidly, so the field of architecture can create something completely different from what we have -- we'll become the architects of the past.

AR: Mr. Ando, we very much appreciate you taking the time to speak to us today.

And that's it for this edition of our special TALKASIA from Osaka, Japan. Thank you for joining me, Anjali Rao, and the world renowned architect, Tadao Ando. I'll see you again soon.

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