I can easily point to Tadao Ando's work as one of my earliest sources of inspiration, pulling me toward a life embedded in architecture. The powerful simplicity of his forms has always seemed to me, to represent an understanding far greater than that of the built environment alone. A few weeks ago, we had a rare opportunity to meet and talk with the master, thanks to a generous offer from Cal Poly Pomona and Axel Schmitzberger, during Ando's brief visit to Los Angeles to collect his 2012 Richard Neutra Award. So, Orhan, Alex, Kaori and I headed out to Neutra's VDL House in Silver Lake, on a chilly afternoon in late March, for a brief, yet memorable, chat.
I met you 25 years ago at Morphosis' office while you were visiting LA doing lectures. I'd like to ask you about the changes you've noticed in Los Angeles since that time.
The first time I came to LA was in 1975. Since then the world has moved very quickly. The environment has changed so much as well. The mentality, or thinking, of the architects here has not changed much compared to the rate of environmental change.
Can you describe this more? The architects of that period believed they were doing groundbreaking work. Do you still think this is true?
What I see, as opposed to the 1950's, when we look at the case study houses, part of the California architecture was the promise of a new lifestyle. The architecture was trying to accommodate, or relate, to this new lifestyle for that generation. This seems to have gradually changed to a search for form for expression by itself. Now, I see more architecture that relates to the business of architecture. In this sense, it seems like the focus of trying to define what living in our time should be like, is not as strong as it used to be back in the '50's.
In the 50's the economic conditions were completely different. We are in a completely different era. We have a very definite difference between income levels, so there's some kind of political nervousness, and architects can no longer separate themselves from the nervousness so they have to respond to social issues in addition to architectural or urban issues. So, I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the architect's role of being a social leader in changing the environment or what they can do at the urban scale.
For me, going back to what we were talking about before, it's a problem not unique to Los Angeles. It's a problem we all share regarding natural resources and the environment. Not too long ago, we were a planet of 3 billion people. Now we have 7.7 billion people. We'll quickly have 10 billion. Because of that, it's very difficult to not always think about how to use the resources available to us. In the sense of the gap you mentioned, it leads to something we need need to address, whether you're rich or poor. As a design profession, we need to make it very clear what our position is, in the global situation that we're facing. How do we intelligently address the problem that faces everyone, about material resources? And how do we lead society to think that it is something we have to address, rather than just following the business driven goals of each project? It's important that within each of our work that we think about how we use materials, and how energy can be used in a way that it creates a meaningful message for people that live in the building. How the importance of the environment can be perceived by the experience of the architecture.
The way that architects think about their work is still the same. There's no change or shift in focus in the way architects address available resources and energy use. It's important for young architects to begin thinking about this.
Are you doing any work, in your own office, that embodies the principals you just talked about?
For me, what I'm trying to do, is try to make people think about these issues. I'm not in a position to tell people what to do. I want people to realize the potential and the problem. For example, in my work, whether it is an art museum or other type of project, I try to put nature as the focus of the message. As a person looks at a space I design, they may question their own existence as it relates to the space, but they are still looking at the architecture in relationship to the natural context.
I look at art - whether it's art, music, film, architecture - as a way to look for inspiration. To make a thing about other things. So, in that same way, I try to make people think about other things in my own work. For example, on the flight here, I was watching the movie "Iron Lady" starring Meryl Streep, portraying Margaret Thatcher in her later years. I was watching Meryl Streep, as an actress - an artist portraying a role - but at the same time, I was thinking about the life and decisions of Margaret Thatcher. In a similar way, in my own work, I try to embed a message that the users can take away with them and use in their own way.
Another example is when I was in Malibu this morning, at my construction site, there was a group of sea lions, and this made me realize that I was not alone in this environment. They are using this same environment.
The business of architecture is in a state of crisis right now. There are many young architects and students that are questioning their role because it is so difficult to find work. Do you have any advice for young architects that are struggling to find new ways to apply their architectural skills and experience?
For me, I think architecture is one of the best professions for society. How many careers can you find that can combine structure and composition of space; while working with specialists in may different fields to create a work of architecture. These skills don't limit themselves to just buildings. We have learned to coordinate and collaborate with many different people to create great things. There are few other professions that rely on one person to coordinate these types of important projects for society. The architect's skills are beneficial to society in so many ways, and that leads us to think about how our creative, managerial and coordination skills can be applied to other fields.
We don't work in a vacuum. We compose, put everything together, while working with a lot of people. There is a lot of excitement and inspiration that comes from interacting and working with so many people. We need to be able to use this practice in a way that extends the profession of architecture into other areas. There are always times of recession and hardship, so we need to understand this greater skill that architecture provides us.
And for me, personally, the hope and the dream is not something you can receive from someone. It's important to start from within. You can't wait for something to happen. This is the approach I've always taken. Look at me - I'm doing well... I didn't study architecture in school. I didn't graduate from university. I started with a big disadvantage.
So you're not going back to boxing?
(laughs all around)
I'm still boxing!
I was watching a documentary online about you on the internet. It was in Japanese, so I couldn't understand a word. There was a scene in the video showing you with a megaphone in your hand, speaking to about 200 hundred workers at a construction site. This scene made me very emotional. I could see that you have a talent for connecting with people.
As we all know, you can't make architecture by yourself. An architect needs to make everyone take ownership for the work. To be successful, you need to ensure that every carpenter, plumber, and so on, in every project, is doing their own project. Every time I go to the construction site, I try to take a photograph of every worker. It's a symbol that we're all working together with a shared goal. It's very important for me that everyone feels that way.
Paul Petrunia is the director of Archinect, a (mostly) online publication/resource founded in 1997 to establish a more connected community of architects, students, designers and fans of the designed environment. Outside of managing his growing team of writers, editors, designers and technology ...