Clark architect Tadao Ando: on the Record

Tadao Ando, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect selected to design the Clark Art Institute’s new wing, sat down with the Record and other news organizations in late November to discuss his vision for the Clark project. His talk, which was translated for the audience, outlined his primary ideas for the design. The talk was followed by a presentation to Clark trustees, guests, staff and friends about the impact of his work on the design for the Clark’s new building.

Ando, who lives in Osaka, Japan, is an established figure in the global pantheon of celebrity architects. Winning the coveted Pritzker Prize in 1995 solidified both his international reputation and his stature as an artist and master practitioner of architectural design. The Pritzker has long been considered the most prestigious award for architecture, with other recent winners including Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas, Sir Norman Foster, Robert Venturi, Aldo Rossi and Philip Johnson.

Ando’s expanding portfolio is prolific and diverse. While the bulk of his work is in his native Japan, Ando has been branching out recently, designing more and more in Europe and North America. His two most recently completed projects are the Giorgio Armani Fashion Centre in Milan and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. Converting a vacant Nestle factory into a “fashion factory,” Ando designed the new global headquarters for the Armani fashion empire in the heart of Milan, considered by many to be the world’s fashion capital.

The jewel in Ando’s Armani crown is a state-of-the-art theatre ? dubbed the Teatro/Armani ? which now serves as the venue for the company’s fashion shows. Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation building opened about a month ago in October. In addition to housing works from the collection of the Pulitzer family, the museum is also the site of several specially-commissioned contemporary works by artists Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly.

Ando’s works also include numerous housing projects in Japan, Osaka’s Church of the Light (1989), the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum (1989-97), the Japanese Pavilion at the Expo ’92 in Seville, the Vitra Conference Pavillion in Weil-am-Rheim (1993), the meditation space at UNESCO headquarters in Paris (1995) and the Benetton Research Center in Treviso (2000).

After having done several urban projects, Ando is centering the Clark design upon Williamstown’s natural surroundings, which he considers an inspiring challenge. He is excited by the opportunity to work in an environment that is largely new to him: rural New England.

“The Clark is a new aspect of the American landscape [for me],” noted Ando, “and I am very glad to get to work in this place, because it represents another part of America that people outside of this country don’t know very much about.”

Ando remembered when Michael Conforti, director of the Clark, first asked him to make the trek to the Berkshires from Japan. Conforti had told him that Williamstown was only two hours from New York, and upon hearing this, Ando remembered an episode when Seiji Ozawa, then music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asked him to come to Tanglewood.

“He said it was only an hour out of Boston,” Ando said.

Only after he made the three-hour journey from Boston to Tanglewood did Ando realize that Ozawa had perhaps underestimated Tanglewood’s isolation. He remembered this incident after hearing Conforti’s reassurance, and was accordingly skeptical about Williams actually being a “short trip” from New York.

But Ando cites that isolation as the Clark’s greatest strength because it sets it apart, making it a unique venue for the appreciation of art. “The Clark, in this beautiful location, is a quiet place away from the city, where people can get away and enjoy themselves,” he said.

At the center of Ando’s architectural philosophy regarding building design in a scenic, natural environment is the recognition of three different types of “nature” itself. “First, there is the untouched, made-by-God nature that is away from human contact. Then there is the nature that people maintain and nurture and then there is the nature that we control,” said Ando, “This is a unique place to design a building, because here in Williamstown, at the Clark, there exists all three of these aspects of nature.”

Ando promised that his design will be very respectful of this unique natural context, and that it will attempt to break down barriers between the institutional nature of the building and the surrounding environment.

“There will be a great sympathy towards nature,” promised Ando.

Ando will work with the Institute’s two existing buildings: the original 1955 neo-classical building and the 1973 modernist addition. To some observers, Ando’s serene, concrete architectural style might clash with the old-fashioned neo-classicism or the dark, harsh modernism of the older structures. But Ando disagrees, hoping that his building will not outshine either of the other two, but relate to them instead.

“I don’t see [the existing buildings] as a problem. The potential that the natural setting has for us will allow us to design something that will strike a balance. I want the new building to be another brother or sister to the current buildings, to live in harmony with them,” said Ando.

In addition to the new Clark building’s natural and physical surroundings, Ando is intrigued by the Clark’s attachment to an elite college. Echoing Thoreau’s legendary comment that “it would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain,” Ando finds the idea of a highly vibrant, intellectual community in an isolated, rural setting very appealing, because it makes the act of learning a “spiritual” endeavor.

“The presence of Williams makes this isolated community academic,” said Ando, “which [in this scenic setting] makes being here a spiritual experience.” Ando hopes his building, which will house galleries, exhibition halls and spaces for art education and research ? will reflect this unique aspect of learning in Williamstown.

In order to achieve these goals, Ando has undertaken an extensive study of the Clark’s surrounding contexts. He came to visit the Clark four separate times, once in each season, so view the landscape in summer, fall, winter and spring, and on each of those visits spent a considerable amount of time walking around the Clark property and around Williamstown to get a sense of both the community’s natural and social ethos.

Additionally, Ando seems highly attuned to the Clark’s demands as he discovers the differences between Japanese and American approaches to developing, designing and implementing major architectural commissions.

“In Japan, you will not find very strong direction from the client, but I find working in America very fascinating because there is very clear and very strong direction from the client,” Ando said. “Here we work very closely with Michael Conforti, who is very clear in his vision and very demanding. I find it very challenging, but very interesting to work in such an environment. The culture of making architecture is different in America and I have to respect the culture here. In American projects [for example], there is always a big team of so many people, so many consultants. There are a lot of meetings. I have to be very strong and very clear in what I want to do so the client can understand.”

Beyond the Clark building itself, Ando brought up the interesting idea of incorporating more art into the Williamstown community itself. He cited a project he did in Naoshima, Japan, where he built a museum in a small town as a potential model for the Clark and Williamstown. In Naoshima, Ando not only designed an art museum, but he also spearheaded an effort to open art galleries and designed small spaces for the display of art throughout the town, converting some houses in the area into galleries.

“I hope maybe to work with many things around [the Clark],” Ando said. “There are many houses around the Clark, for example, that have the potential to be spaces for art as well, to relate to the Clark. Some could be small galleries. I love the idea of letting the art go out of the Institution and blend with the town.”

This desire to blend the Clark’s function as an institution for the conservation, appreciation and learning of fine art, with its contexts, be they natural surroundings, existing structures, the Clark’s residential neighbors, the College or Williamstown as a whole, will be the underlying principle of Ando’s much-anticipated design for the new Clark structure. He hopes to unveil his conceptual design sometime in the spring, with groundbreaking scheduled to commence in early 2004.

In the meantime, he will remain busy. In addition to the Clark project and just as his design for the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth begins construction, Ando is also working on a design for the Asian Wing for the Art Institute of Chicago, the new Calder Museum in Philadelphia and the new Pinault Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris.