About a decade ago, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando designed a high-end housing complex on an "unbuildable" 60-degree incline overlooking Kobe harbor.
There was only one problem: He had no rights to the land and did not know anyone who did.
When he presented the plans to the company that held the property, they were outraged.
But, as when other doors were closed in his face, Ando persisted, overpowered skepticism, and built his project. Architects, he said through a translator during a recent appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, should take the lead whenever they can: "If you challenge others, chances will come to you in so many ways."
Ando, 62, is renowned for designing spaces of serene calm and simple elegance, and for using water and natural light to induce contemplation, as in the celebrated new Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. In his introduction at LACMA, architect Thom Mayne praised Ando for "making buildings that offer peace, respite and calm."
In person, though, Ando comes across as a direct, driven man whose speaking style better resembles barking orders than reciting Zen poetry. From what he describes in his lecture, and in a conversation the next morning, his energy and willfulness have been as crucial to his success as his respect for the soul.
Despite almost universal acclaim -- including a 1995 Pritzker Prize -- Ando has built far more in Japan than in the United States. But this may be changing, with his successes in Fort Worth and with St. Louis' Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, both completed last year, and with coming projects in Southern California.
As a teenager in Osaka, Ando discovered books of Le Corbusier's designs and sketched their lines in imitation. The Swiss visionary, along with Frank Lloyd Wright, whose intimate scale and attention to nature spoke to the young Ando, became key figures in an architectural education that involved incessant travel and reading but no formal schooling. His parents couldn't afford to send him to college.
His first buildings were small Japanese houses, including one that became his office, soon occupied by a stray dog whose instincts toward clients Ando took to heart.
For years, Ando struggled, not only because of his lack of traditional credentials but because of unorthodox ideas -- and an elegant austerity -- out of step with the bold corporate style of '80s Japan and the reigning postmodern eclecticism of the West. But he continued to build.
The unlikely concepts continued as he grew more successful: underground temples one entered by going below pools of water lilies, a barren postindustrial island (Awajishima, facing Osaka Bay) he reforested and filled with a hotel, open-air theater and botanical gardens.
He's especially sensitive to regions decimated by earthquakes, as in Kobe, where he planted 300,000 white blossom trees as a memorial to the 1995 temblor.
"People need comfort from architecture," he said the morning after his speech. "But their spirit needs something too. I learned about this spirit of quiet from Japanese gardens and other work that provides a quest for quiet."
His behavior over breakfast was unusual by American standards: He laughed maniacally when his eggs arrived, and he began pounding his head with his fist until it was audible, as if demonstrating his own hardheadedness. Ando, who looks like a Japanese Beatle in his black suit and mop-top hair, has reached the point where these qualities become colorful eccentricities instead of impediments.
Known for his ins and outs
As a designer, he's especially noted for his interior spaces and courtyards. "These are spaces that don't have any function," he says. "But I have been able to create spaces that intrigue people spiritually."
Despite the elegance of his style, he tends to build with raw concrete and steel. The Fort Worth museum -- placed, imposingly, across the street from Louis Kahn's beloved Kimbell Art Museum -- is built of aluminum, concrete and glass, and from one angle seems to be emerging from water.
"In effect, his building is a carefully calibrated machine that sensitizes us to an increasingly intimate sequence of experiences," Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff judged. Observers note the way Ando's spaces frame the art, as well as the part played by natural elements.
That integration with nature is something Ando saw early on in the sleek postwar Case Study Houses, which he calls his favorite Los Angeles buildings.
"I find Los Angeles very intriguing, because it is not a city built from nature," he said. "It is made from intention, from Hollywood, from oil; it will always be very artificial. But I'm always amazed at how green the city is considering that it was once a desert."
When he looks at the United States, he sees a country whose buildings are often driven purely by commercial considerations, that don't create a sense of place, and that exist in a decaying environment.
But he admires Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new cathedral, and the way Hollywood, like his own work, realizes people's dreams. He enjoys the unstructured "casualness" he finds in California art and culture.
In the next year, Ando's associate Kulapat Yantrasast, and USC professor Yo-Ichiro Hakomori will open an office in Los Angeles (called Workshop Hakomori Yantrasast) that will implement some of Ando's designs. Their first joint projects will be a Carbon Canyon home for "Matrix" producer Joel Silver as well as a private home in Malibu, overlooking the Pacific, for a young couple. Ando has already begun the designs.
"It's very pure, it's very clean, and we thought it would be great for a beach house," Silver said of Ando's style, which he's seen demonstrated in homes and buildings in Tokyo. Silver, who collects homes by Wright, describes Ando's plan for the concrete and glass house as defined by "tremendous open spaces, with great freedom to it."
Ando realizes Americans see things, experience space, differently than he does. "For me, when I go to some temples, I feel alive, I discover myself," he says. "I feel my own freedom in a temple, but maybe people in California feel freedom in the open."