Architecture Critic #1

Through the Wide Angle PART 2

Architect Tadao Ando’s Rokko Housing

B y S i g u l a r N e w m a n

Tadao Ando was born in Osaka Japan, on September 13th 1941 1), arriving minutes apart from his twin brother. Growing up, Ando was a mediocre student. At first Ando pursued boxing, like his twin brother, and at one point he even worked as a trucker. Instead of pursuing a formal education, he followed his own career path. Since early childhood, he has always been fascinated with form and materiality. Becoming ever more passionate about crafting, he enrolls as a carpenter’s apprentice. Realizing that his true passion lay in Architecture, Ando embarks on a world voyage of discovery. He visits rural Japan at first and then journeys to the West. After returning to Osaka, Ando obtains a license and in 1969 opens up Tadao Ando Architects & Associates2). The world has never been the same since. With astonishing clarity, Ando builds his thesis in reinforced concrete, with the precise capability, of a modern ballistic missile zeroing in on its target. Ando’s unique abilities to transform space, quickly become known. His sense of simplicity and his mastery of place become his trademark.

I too believe like Ando, that a building as a foreign invading object, must reflect the values and material spatiality of what make that particular space a new place. This is a complex idea that every one of Ando’s buildings seems to solve. Basically his concept calls for the creation of a new structure, based primarily and first on where it is at, secondly who it is for, or who uses it, and thirdly what the building or structure is, what does it represent, both symbolically and materialistically. This brings us to the project I will be describing in this paper. “Architecture represents an autonomous system of thought.

To think architecturally is not merely to deal with external conditions or to solve functional problems. I am convinced that architects must train themselves to ask fundamental questions, to give free rein to their individual architectural imaginations, and to consider human beings, life, history, tradition, and climate. We must create architectural spaces in which man can experience—as he does through poetry or music—surprise, discovery, intellectual stimulation, peace and the joy of life.” 3) Tadao Ando from Werner Blaser, ed. Tadao Ando: Sketches. (p16) Ando was an avid fan of Le Corbusier as a teenager, as a matter of fact he has a dog named Le Corbusier. His first interest in architecture was nourished at15 when he bought a book of Le Corbusier sketches. “I traced the drawings of his early period so many times, that all pages turned black,” says Tadao Ando: “in my mind I quite often wonder how Le Corbusier would have thought about this project or that.”

The Rokko Housing4)is a multi family residential housing project. The term of planning spanned from October 1978 to October 1981 and the entire construction took three years from 1981 to May 1983. The site area measures 1852 sq. meters and the total floor area is 1779 square meters. These totals show the extremely efficient usage of the site space. The site, well actually the very building itself has been cut into the side of the mountain. The particular topography of the building site has posed a dilemma from the start. The 60 degree slope made this a particularly challenging project. There were also building codes in the area that did not allow a building to have more than two stories. This height restriction encouraged Ando to seek out an alternative solution.

This collective housing project sits at the foot of the Rokko mountains. The site occupies the highest spot, surrounded by an expensive residential area. From this spot one gets a great view of Kobe Port. Soil conditions were carefully studied over a wide spread area so that the building would fit securely into the topography. A computer was used to analyze the foundation. The processing power available afforded the engineers valuable insights and precious time savings.

In symbolic Japanese design, one is completely cut off from the street as soon as he enters through the gate or doorway of a house. The building concept reflected this ideology. Ando wanted each unit to have direct access to the street, but wanted to keep the street separate prom the communal interior space of the building. The buildings inner core therefore, became the backbone that launched the overall identity thesis of the building. Tadao came up with the idea of cutting off the slope and locating the housing units along the curve of the given slope.

So basically it would be a series of two story units stacked up on top of each-other, following the sixty degree slope of the hill. This design would also accommodate the local building code restriction, allowing only two floors above ground. The decision was made to excavate the hill side and create more square footage. As I have touched on earlier, this cutting inside the sixty degree slope gave the architect some complex issues to deal with. Composed of a sleepy residential area, overlooking Kobe Port in Osaka Bay, the real estate prices in the area are very high and it is almost impossible to buy, build-able land inside this unique neighborhood. Having studies Japanese culture and customs, Ando was particularly impressed with the tea house 5) and also with the garden.

The garden occupies a very ceremonial place in Japanese customs, and Tadao wanted to reflect that in this particular design. He wanted to build a quiet building that would be embedded in the nature surrounding it.

This complex development consists of a multitude of square compartments stacked like, picture if you will some plastic produce boxes, like the ones used by farmers in Japan. The floor area comprises a perfect square and the walls are rectangular in shape. These boxes were constructed out of reinforced concrete, poured on site, measuring 5.8 meters by 4.8 meters. In section, it follows to the slope, and in plan, it is symmetrical. Gaps are intentionally created while ascending the slope. The gaps relate to each other and help unite the whole building. Some of these extra spaces become plazas for the residents, also creating more space. Twenty units in total are mounted along the slope, creating private terraces looking out in many various directions, and overlooking the beautiful Sea of Japan. The building has a total of ten floors, but as far as the building code is concerned the building is only 10 meters in height, due to the way the two floor units line up on top of each other.

“I expect that life in these diverse units will concentrate around the terrace and the opportunity to communicate with nature.“. (p 61) Tadao Ando, Rokko Housing

The goal was to link the entrance of each unit to a public space and to create continuity and flow throughout the structure. In traditional rural Japanese villages, the back alleys were used as public space. Ando incorporated these ideas into the design, trying to restore a certain quality, by building on a natural relationship between the public street space and the private interior space, “the passage ways must be activated by the interpretation of the public and private realms so that one can get a sense of the lives lived in each unit.” (p. 11) Tadao Ando, Rokko Housing

This idea of a communal space shared by the building occupants is something that Ando has used before, and it is a main-stay of his architectural ideology. Perhaps that is why he has been asked so often to develop museums and hotels, these being the most circulated places. However, the design of a house, that is connected to another house blurs the line between private and public space. Since all units are connected, it becomes harder to separate them and create individuality. Placing the units two floors high at a time allowed the clusters to develop a singular identity. While composed of twenty units, all identical in size, the arrangement of the twenty units provided private corridors and secluded corners and spaces. The terraces formed on top of the units provided the inhabitants with their own decks. These terraces overlook the beautiful Bay of Kobe. Below is photo of the development.

This structure is stunning even in photographs. It holds a sort of subdued dynamic. It is a puritan building, form follows function. It is clean and modern looking. The bare concrete walls act together as a whole. The structure only makes sense if you look at it as a whole. The different living units only find a sense of cohesiveness if taken together. They could not exist by themselves. What I find most appealing is that the structure is very symmetric, other than the offset central staircase and a second floor unit that has been placed out of sync from the other ones, precisely to help balance the overall symmetric look. When you look at this building from different angles it always looks different. The pure materiality allows the modernist symbolism to become manifested. The various renderings of the project seem like cubist paintings. Even today, some twenty six years later, the building looks fresh and uninhibited.

Ando talks about an earlier project, The Rowhouse in Sumiyoshi 6)that was the inspiration and also held the prototype of the Rokko Housing courtyard. Below is a rendering of a cutaway drawing, illustrating the idea of a centralized connection space.

The strong implications of light and shadow are apparent here. In the opinion of many great architects like Le Corbusier, modernism is all about light and shadow. Ando uses light as a fabric he clothes his buildings in. The fabric of light takes on a new dimensionality of time. As the sun moves on the sky, the shadows it casts on the ground interact with the building and its occupants, accentuating the materiality of the structure.

The Rowhouse in Sumiyoshi7) exemplifies Ando’s concept of a successful space, “ No matter how advanced society becomes, institutionally or technologically, a house in which nature can be sensed represents for me the ideal environment in which to live. From a functional viewpoint, the courtyard of the Rowhouse in Sumiyoshi forces the inhabitant to endure the occasional hardships. At the same time, however, the open courtyard is capable of becoming the house's vital organ, introducing the everyday life and assimilating precious stimuli such as changes in nature.” - Tadao Ando in Tadao Ando 1: Houses and Housing (2007)

This particular project also dealt with space limitations from the start, being surrounded on all sides by other buildings. Therefore the courtyard found itself part of the structure, becoming the most important element in an otherwise rectangular box.

Tadao Ando has been and continues to be, a strong advocate for the cultural specificity of a site. The conceptualization of the new structure should be born out of the site. Natural phenomenon as well as cultural and usage parameters, have the final say in the projects design, to quote Ando again, and he explains it so well, “My goal is to create an autonomous architecture, which is rigorously logic, and yet in harmony with the local character. I do not consider architecture an abstraction from which one should eliminate all traces of humanity and of everyday experience. But I do not think architecture should be something without logic, involved only in everyday experience. Everyday experience is to act as a basis, as a starting point for the logical construction of architecture. I use materials in a direct way, simplifying forms and trying to give life to a style in which to intergrate and found together many different images. My starting point is always the everyday, but my goal is to refine everyday spaces to the point where they become symbolical. I introduce nature inside a system which is fixed by “artificial” rules, in the attempt to give life to meeting places – spaces which each individual one can make his own.” –Tadao Ando (p 17) Rokko Housing

So there you have it. In Ando’s own words, what makes a building successful is the way it interacts with the people inside it and the nature outside. Ando considers this complex to be one of his most important works, best representing his ideas. Why was this resident building so successful Ando was asked, “ I think architecture becomes interesting when it has a double character, that is, when it is as simple as possible but, at the same time as complex as possible ” - Tadao Ando in Tadao Ando 1: Houses and Housing (2007)

Some years later, Tadao Ando build a second housing complex, adjacent to Rokko Housing 1. Rokko Housing 2 8) was four times larger than the original building, this structure includes 50 apartments, designed on a square grid, of 5.2 meters. An even larger phase three structure, is now under way above Rokko Housing 2 which incorporated ecologically sensitive, green roofs technology.

Ando had to work with a 60 degree slope which is insanely steep. To the right you can see the excavation taking place. Below left, the concrete work has begun. These photos illustrate very well the concept of a building born of the site. The structure, although modern and perfectly geometric, still follows the contour of the site, complementing its natural topography.

The view from the terraces is breath taking, below is a view of the interior spaces which are bathed in sunlight. Bottom right is a computer rendering of an apartment unit.

As I was researching Ando, I came across this project, and at first I just gave it a glance and moved on. I later returned to it because I felt drawn by a certain quality to the building I couldn't at first explain. I thought at first that the construction was overly simplistic, bordering on boring. Upon further investigation, I realized that this structure is much more complex. As a matter of fact it is a cubist paradise. The way the cubes interact together creates a formidable experience. I would like to live in this building. I would like to dwell here. The way the light washes the bare concrete walls reminds me of my childhood, when because of my smaller size, I was able to climb and fit into nooks and crannies of my surrounding neighborhood buildings. When I was a kid I was quite the climber. We used to race each other up and down the stairs of my building, and take turns walking the line. The line was a test of your courage, it involved walking as close as you could to the ledge, of usually the highest building available. The ledge was 12 to 20 inch wide slab of concrete that formed the edge of the flat roofed, communist project multi-story housing units. This was scary at best because if your parents spotted you attempting to prove your manhood, you would almost die from the beatings, and if you fell off than you most likely would die, so this feat had to be attempted in secrecy and yet you could boast about it to your friends once it was done. I still remember how uncomfortable the look over the edge was. The longer you contemplated the scarier it would look, than you would see little people and little trees at the bottom of the building and soon you would be thinking that you would have rather stayed a coward than end up here.

What I am trying to illustrate here, while remembering my childhood, is that humans are very influenced by scale and proportion. Especially when living spaces are concerned, humans rely on proportions as a guide. They learn to trust it, or mistrust it, as in my case, walking on the ledge of a five story building. The sense of proportion therefore is of utmost importance when constructing a machine for living in. What feels comfortable for some may become nauseating for others. However, when relating the concepts of scale and proportion to a residential dwelling place, one has to take into account the livability of the said space.

Livability is the product of successful dwelling. Dwelling as a concept has been debated and argued over by some of the brightest minds historically. In Ando’s world however, dwelling takes center stage. I believe that this concept of elevating the art of dwelling above all others, meets the main goal of architecture. Architecture is about humans, it is the art of building ideas from raw elements, the art of constructing a place inside space. Space has the final say on the place, and time proves itself elemental in this equation. Timeless structures such as the Roman viaducts bringing water to European cities, have accomplished timelessness only by taking into account what it means to dwell. The art of living in time, can be expressed as a function, architecturally, only if the human proportion is added in. Timelessness can be arrived at, only when man reaches an understanding with the essence of being, of what it means to be. Dwelling is a matter of placing a space in time.

Bibliography Tadao Ando 1: Houses and Housing (2007) Tadao Ando: Rokko Housing (1986),_II_y_III Tadao Ando, Architect and Associates. “Rokko Apartments”, Japan Architect. February 1984, Volume 59, Number 2 (322). Werner Blaser, ed. Tadao Ando: Sketches. Berlin: Birkhauser Verlag Basel, (1990) Kenneth Frampton, ed. Tadao Ando: buildings, projects and writings. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, (1984)


QR Code
QR Code architecture_critique_part_2 (generated for current page)