Beijing Exhibition Curator’s Insight into Architect Tadao Ando

By Alistair Baker-Brian, January 7, 2022

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The Tadao Ando World Exhibition Tour: Youth ended on January 9, 2022 at Beijing Minsheng Art Museum. While the exhibition itself has come to an end, the work of legendary Japanese architect Tadao Ando will likely have a lasting impact upon those in Beijing, especially the exhibition curator Mr. Ma Weidong. 


Ma Weidong on the left and Tadao Ando on the right. Image via © CA-Group, photographer Xue Yutao

Ando himself is certainly no ordinary architect. Self-study and night school were his routes to the top. He also gained a fair amount of inspiration from traveling overseas and learning from other legendary architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and others. 

The exhibition in Beijing includes exact replicas of some of his finest work notably Church of the Light, Church on the Water, the Meditation Space at UNESCO headquarters and more. 

That’s put some questions to Ma who is a Chinese partner of Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, as well as the curator of the Tadao Ando World Exhibition Tour: Youth. We were curious about Ando’s background, his inspiration for becoming an architect and how he gained a reputation as “master of light.”


Tadao Ando's infamous Church of the Light. Image via © Mitsuo Matsuoka

We understand that in Ando’s early days in Japan, he was a boxer before studying architecture by himself and at night school. What do you think was the inspiration in his life to become an architect?
In fact, architecture is a very fascinating field. The visitors to the Beijing exhibition said that seeing these beautiful models and drawings made them want to understand architecture much further.

This was also true for Mr. Ando; he was touched by the Todaiji Temple and the light of La Chapelle de Ronchamp from the very beginning. Those moments that touched his heart were remembered. Those moments inspired Mr. Ando to create more moments using light and shadow.

How have architects from outside Japan such as Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and others influenced his work?
Mr. Ando did not receive systematic training in architecture, but rather traveled and studied on his own. This means the influence from other architects was broad and complex, whether it was Wright's light on the façade of the mountain house, or the concrete of Le Corbusier and Louis Kang. All of these influences were deeply implanted in Mr. Ando's mind and influenced him in one way or another.

It is not only the architects that have been a source of influence. In the 1960s, Mr. Ando was also greatly influenced by the “Concrete School of Thought,” an artistic group that included Jiro Yoshihara and Kazuo Shiraga.

So, whether it was the masters, the artists or the unknown works rooted in folk culture, Mr. Ando found his own architectural expression through comparison and criticism.

Many refer to him as the “Master of Light.” Can you explain the role light plays in his designs? What other factors make his work unique?
In my opinion, Mr. Ando is more of a “poet of light” than a “poet of fair-faced concrete.” Among all architects, Mr. Ando has the most, as well as the best use of light and shadow. 

Whether he uses fair-faced concrete, wooden structures or other materials, his works are inseparable from light. Light is the soul and eternal protagonist of his work.

Of course, fair-faced concrete is a very strong feature and design approach of his works — the geometry consists of “circle, triangle, square,” seemingly without any technical content, but the architectural expression is pure and powerful.

In addition, because of the light, the architecture is given a strong spirituality. Mr. Ando is not creating an abstract space, but trying to find an archetype of space, which is very simple in itself. However, it can carry and express the various needs of people in this simple composition and space. 

The Tadao Ando World Exhibition Tour: Youth recently took place in the Beijing Minsheng Contemporary Art Museum. What could visitors see there? How can we understand the theme of youth?
The whole exhibition was a treasure from the inside out!

The exhibition traced the footsteps of the master Mr. Ando through exhibits spanning over half a century, including beautiful architectural models, detailed design manuscripts, a large number of exclusive films, travel sketches and photographs, as well as contemplations with Mr. Ando on architecture, the environment, the city and our only earth under the epidemic.

So, from an academic point of view, these selected projects were presented in such a professional way that visitors can see them with pleasure. 

From the perspective of the exhibition, we have three 1:1 replica spaces where the audience can wander through the architectural space to feel and experience Mr. Ando’s work. There is also a green apple installation that Mr. Ando has specially placed at the entrance of the museum. We hope that you can feel unafraid of failure, be brave to challenge and keep young. 

Young people probably have the most right to speak about “youth.” The “youth” referred to in the exhibition is more than that. As Mr. Ando wants to express, “youth” is not about age, but about a state of mind. 

So, whether you are young, middle-aged or even old, the courage and strength to face up to challenges without fear of failure is “youth.”

As the curator, what is the most important thing you take away from the exhibition?
We can feel from the exhibition that Mr. Ando cares about each and every visitor. Whether it is an academic audience, a pan-professional audience or a general audience, all of them can leave feeling invigorated. 

This is also the goal that we hope to achieve as curators. We hope to help academic audiences get professional support, the pan-professional audiences further their understanding of architecture, and general audiences become more interested in architecture. All of these steps are positive.

The core of what I have learned from Mr. Ando over the years as a Chinese partner of Tadao Ando Architect & Associates is the reverence for work and for life. I share it here with architects as well. 

As an architect, you have to face the base of the project in front of you and face the projects you undertake with a sense of reverence. Mr. Ando always conducts himself in front of those with a stake in each project. He is not someone seeking material gain, he takes on a lot of projects and is covered a lot by the media. These are only the results from his attitude of “taking every opportunity seriously.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

[Cover image Forever Youth-Green Apple via © Shigeo Ogawa]

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