The material makes it harder
for architects to lie.
The primal power of Tadao Ando derives from his sublime use
of one material and one move.
There’s a moment in A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s 1998 book on hiking
the Appalachian Trail, when he emerges from the forest to find a beautiful river
and an ugly bridge ruining the scenery. It may have been at the Delaware
Water Gap, that little moment of out-West-scale geological grandeur in the
East, but it matters little. We’ve all seen similar scenes; this country is a mess.
What caught my attention was Bryson’s description of the bridge as a product
of “the Age of Concrete,” and that with a disparaging tone.
Having grown up in Boston, with its rich history of poured-in-place wonders—
I. M. Pei’s gorgeous and forgotten Christian Science Center perhaps chief
among them—I’ve always had an exaggerated love for concrete. My earliest
memories of being affected by architecture are set in the dim halls of Paul
Rudolph’s Boston Government Service Center (a complex even more thoroughly forgotten than Pei’s), where the architect took all the tricks he’d tried at the
Art and Architecture Building, in New Haven, and multiplied them by his increased star power. It’s a pile of corduroy concrete in the shape of the Campo,
in Siena, decorated with quotations from Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette
and built to the megastructural scale of the most ambitious urban renewal. It’s
dark and unforgiving and, in my memories, always wet. It’s perfect. If Rudolph’s
masterpiece is a product of the Age of Concrete, I don’t think we should ever
grow out of it.
As I mentioned in the last issue, vis-à-vis Polshek Partnership’s new
Standard Hotel, in New York, part of the joy of appreciating concrete buildings
is that the material makes it harder for architects to lie. It is what it is: rock
shaped by the architect’s imagination. There’s a little steel thrown in to handle
tensile forces, sure, and pipes and insulation and wires and all the rest, but in
unifying structure and skin a lot of the obscuring mess of a typical curtain-wall
building is eliminated. In short, concrete buildings are primal. Primal is good.
And if a building can be both primal and refined, well...isn’t that why we all
love Tadao Ando?
In the summer of 1993, I went to Japan on a three-week exchange program
for architecture students. Part of that time we were in charrette with our hosts
at Waseda University (I’m not sure anything notable came from those studios),
but the rest was spent touring: Kyoto, Osaka, etc. The hyped continued on page 84
Top, Richard Pare/courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; bottom,
Jeff Goldberg/Esto, courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
The Stone Hill Center (top), located at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown,
Massachusetts, is part of an Ando-designed master plan that will eventually
include an exhibition, visitor, and conference center. The landscape architect
is Reed Hilderbrand Associates. Above: The special-exhibition gallery.