Frank Gehry and Tadao Ando are two of the most famous architects in the world. Each has a distinctive style: Gehry produces organic and free-flowing designs, incorporating unexpected shapes, angles and materials to produce logic-defying structures that appear to float above the ground; while Ando creates solid concrete structures, very much tied to the earth (even buried within it), but ultimately deriving their form from the elements of space and light that they encapsulate.
During my trip to Japan in late 2015, I had the pleasure of seeing examples of both their work: Gehry’s giant fish in Kobe and a show based on his recent project for the Fondation Louis Vuitton; and Ando’s series of galleries and museums that form part of the Naoshima Art Island project (including the Ando museum itself). It all came together at a major retrospective of Gehry’s work, “I have an idea” which, fittingly, is showing at 21_21 Design Sight in Roppongi, a building designed by Ando.
Despite the differences in their work, there are strong similarities, even commonalities – for example, they have both pushed aesthetic boundaries, and both have developed significant signature styles. They are also highly attuned to the use of space, light and materials. Their work is never pure ornament, everything has a purpose, even if it is “only” to maximise light or enhance the use of space. And their goal is to create a connection between the function of the building and its use or purpose. It’s architecture as facilitator, because it prompts, even demands, a reaction from the occupants: inhabitants, students, patients, patrons, visitors, employees.
For me, a key difference is how they appear to solve the problem of designing unique solutions for site-specific locations, while maintaining their distinctive styles. In his own words, Gehry starts with “an idea”, and then explores, extends and extrapolates the idea until he ends up with a design solution that lends itself to the desired outcome. His ideas may originate from the client brief, but the buildings always impose themselves upon their location, because in spite of the organic forms, they appear out of context (but not out of step) with their natural surroundings.
Whereas Ando’s work only truly reveals itself once the internal space has been created, usually achieved by removing the earth, and burying or submerging the building in the ground. From some angles, a number of Ando’s buildings have no visible superstructure, suggesting the intention is for them to be subsumed, even absorbed by the landscape. A few of his designs only “exist” when you are deep inside them, or when the natural light is used to achieve a specific effect.
Despite Gehry’s random designs and the somewhat chaotic nature of the iterative modelling process, he is actually a thorough technician; his design methodology has resulted in numerous software programs and other digital applications that are licensed for commercial use. The idea is a vital starting point, but the final form is more important.
By contrast, Ando’s singular use of polished concrete suggests a cold or even clinical approach to his practice; in fact, he is more of a purist in his search of form, and actually strives to establish a connection with and respect for nature. One senses that the form is actually subservient to the idea, however perfect the physical outcome.
Of course, idea and form are equally important, so I think the goal is to achieve a balance (not necessarily harmony) between the two. Even better is the creative tension where one continuously questions and informs the other. The best architecture is never fully resolved, and always asks more of us, however often we see it; mediocre buildings simply get ignored, or taken for granted. (And hopefully, the bad designs never get built…)
Next week: Is this The Conversation we should be having?