At a staggering $200 million, their new 30,000ft² concrete compound is one of the few American residences designed by the famed architect Tadao Ando. Comissioned by art collector William Bell in 2003, the monstrous mansion is typical of Ando’s signature “critical regionalism” philosophy, which focuses on modern tradition while still situating the building in geographical and cultural context. Think: minimal, spacious concrete hallways with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Pacific ocean in this example.
It’s a design language that has made Ando the go-to designer for ultra wealthy A-listers and high-brow critics alike. Over the years billionaire American fashion designer Tom Ford scooped up a $75 million ranch designed by the Japanese master, while Kanye West picked up a $57.3 million Malibu holiday home by Ando last year. Most recently he collaborated with The Met Costume Centre’s curator, Andrew Bolton, on their 2023 exhibition dedicated to his late friend Karl Lagerfeld.
Billionaire Skims’ founder Kim Kardashian is also a client, and even visited his Japan office earlier this year. “[I] met with the master himself, Tadao Ando, to review and discuss a dream project we have been working on for the past two years,” she said in an Instagram post revealing 3D mock ups of a “space-ship style” mansion that will be built on a plot land in Palm Springs.
“I don’t believe architecture has to speak too much. It should remain silent and let nature in the guise of sunlight and wind,” says Ando of his in-demand buildings. "In all my works, light is an important controlling factor. I create enclosed spaces mainly by means of thick concrete walls. The primary reason is to create a place for the individual, a zone for oneself within society. When the external factors of a city’s environment require the wall to be without openings, the interior must be especially full and satisfying."
During his career he’s completed over 300 projects that can be found around Japan, Chicago, Paris, Mexico City, Milan, New York City and Shanghai, among others. He’s also equally decorated, with a bulging list of titles and awards, including the prestigious Pritzker prize in 1995 (a feat practically unheard of for self-taught architects).
As the lauded designer makes headlines once again for his buildings-slash-works-of-art, we trace the Japanese architect’s unconventional route to global stardom.
From his short-lived boxing career to being a self-taught architecture master
Born in 1941 in Minato-ku, Osaka, a few minutes before his twin brother, Ando was raised by his great grandmother after his parents chose to separate the twins aged two. The 81-year-old is notoriously private about his unusual upbringing and family dynamic, but loudly praises his great grandmother for instilling in him an appreciation for the arts and nature.
As for his fascination with architecture, Ando credits a lonesome young carpenter who was solely responsible for his one-story house being converted into a two-story structure when he was 14 years old. “I watched him work quietly and unwaveringly from morning to night for several months. I longed to join in on the construction. As the roof was dismantled, a hole appeared in the sky above my head. I still remember the glare of the sky and the excitement I felt as I looked up.” As well as seeing the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel during a school trip to Tokyo.
Despite cultivating a love for architecture throughout his teens, the Japanese master took up boxing under the name “Great Ando” for two years before finally pivoting fulltime into the profession. “Boxing is a sport of pure stoicism and solitude; in the process of pushing your body and mind to the absolute limit, power is generated,” he later said of his decision to pursue the sport, adding that: “Architecture is the same.”
His bad grades meant he couldn’t study architecture in university, so instead he took night classes to learn how to draw and attended correspondence courses on interior design. However he mainly taught himself through books discarded by senior architecture students and by visiting buildings around the world designed by Le Corbusier (of whom he even named his dog after), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Kahn.
“I was never a good student. I always preferred learning things on my own outside of class. When I was about 18, I started to visit temples, shrines, and tea houses in Kyoto and Nara; there’s a lot of great traditional architecture in the area. I was studying architecture by going to see actual buildings, and reading books about them."
Still, it only took him a year to learn what traditional architecture students learn in five and by 1969 he had already opened his practice aged 28 in his hometown Osaka, where it is still based today. Throughout his career Ando refused to establish an office in Toyko, which was typically seen as essential to achieve success in Japan, to illustrate his independence and willingness to go against the grain.
His signature style and most famous designs
His earliest work as an established architect was the Tomishima House in Osaka which he built in 1973. However it was the Rowhouse in Sumiyoshi that first put him on the map. Completed in 1979, he broke conventions by renovating a traditional “nagaya” style multiplex into a windowless building that relied on an open ceiling over central courtyard for lighting. With large expanses of glass, smooth concrete walls, and a beautiful integration of nature into the design, the project came to represent his lifelong design philosophy termed “Critical Regionalism”. It also won him the Architectural Institute of Japan’s annual award in 1979, which turned him into a national figure.
Some of his most acclaimed work over his career includes the Church of Light, which is a Christian temple in the small town of Ibaraki that features a massive cross cut-out in the concrete structure as the only source of natural light. He also designed Water Temple Honpukuji, which is a stunning pool-like, circular structure that reflects the mountainous skyline surrounding the Shingon Buddhist temple. All of which were made with his own unique recipe of concrete called “Ando concrete” which he has perfected over the years.
“The essence of Japanese traditional culture lies in its view of nature. This is in stark contrast to the Western idea of nature, which attempts to control it as part of the artificial world,” he has said of his nature-loving art practice. “Nature changes with the transition of the seasons and the passage of time, and therefore the things we create in nature must become part of it. Nature is not an object to be antagonised and conquered, but an entity in itself.”
As well as the prestigous Pritzker Architecture Prize, Ando has been awarded the AIA Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects, the Grand Officer of the Order of the Star of Italy, Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris, and the Order of Culture from the Japanese Ministry for his impressive portfolio.
His 10,000 steps a day lifestyle and four-story downtown Osaka home
As one of the greatest living architects, great interest is paid to his own home. Known as the “Atelier” or “Studio Annexe” in design circles, the four-story building in downtown Osaka is built around a stairwell that leads to perfectly symmetrical floors that are flooded in natural light. Having built it in 1995, he never officially moved in but visits daily — using the first floor as a living room (and backdrop for celebrity vistors like Kim Kardashian) and the second as a study.
A self-professed workaholic, Ando only slowed down his relentless pace after having two major surgeries in 2009 and 2014. “After returning from my successful surgeries, I cut my working time in half. This gave me time to read, catch up on culture, and do things that were not previously possible because of my exceedingly busy schedule,” he explained in an interview. “I guess I’ve lost some things because of my illnesses, but I’ve also gained things as well. I am missing five of my organs, so I feel much lighter and nimbler than I used to!”
Nowadays he lives a “humble life”, consisting of early morning walks (he’s a huge advocate for the popular 10,000 steps a day goal) and evening gym sessions.