Building a Bridge from Mud to Concrete: Tadao Ando and Terunobu Fujimori

Any trip to Japan would be incomplete without learning about the country’s prolific contemporary architects. I was fortunate to happen upon two exhibits representing a spectrum of modern Japanese architecture. Terunobu Fujimori and Tadao Ando are stylistically as different as can be. Yet they share an affinity for the environment that manifests in their buildings and their practice.

Taking Architecture Back to Its Trunk

terunobu fujimori Leek House

 Terunobu Fujimori dedicated himself to becoming an architectural critic for the first forty years of his life. At a friend’s request, he designed a small history museum, which was well received and led to additional commissions. Natural and local materials characterize Fujimori’s style. Hay, charcoal, shells, copper, and living plants often serve as decorative materials on the interior and exterior surfaces of Fujimori’s buildings. In many cases, the availability of local materials dictates the design of the structure.


Fujimori takes a unique approach to construction. He calls his contracting company the Jormon Company, referencing early inhabitants of the Japanese islands. The Company’s membership typically includes Fujimori and the clients themselves, as well as other locals.

His designs frequently riff on features of a traditional Japanese home, such as a fireplace or a tea room. He dedicated significant attention to the medium of the tea house, but to be honest I find these structures gimmicky and uninteresting. Many of his buildings feature custom furniture with rough, unpolished wood that eschews typical Japanese or Scandinavian modernism. The design of his structures typically reflects the purpose of the buildings. The Tajimi Mosaic Tile Museum incorporates tile fragments into its façade. His Stork House has a built-in home for a single stork per the client’s request.

Tajimi mosaic Tile Museum
Tajimi Mosaic Tile Museum, photo by Ken Lee

La Collina, a factory for a family-owned confectionary, is one of Fujimori’s most ambitious project. Tree pillars support the roof and the earthen roof sports grass in spring and summer. Inside, bits of charcoal decorate the ceiling of the lobby. Custom furniture and fields of crops round out the property.

terunobu la collina
La Collina

Another of my favorite buildings from Fujimori is the Lamune Onsen, or Japanese hotspring. The bathing room features organic lines, a tree trunk shooting up to the ceiling, sea shells embedded in a pattern on the wall. The exterior relies on a traditional charring treatment that preserves the wood – a technique prominently featured on another of Fujimori’s most famous buildings, the cedar house.

terunobu lamune onsen
Lamune Onsen, Getty Images

Brutalism with a Natural Touch

The Tokyo National Art Center currently hosts a blockbuster retrospective of Ando’s work (through December 2017), with a comprehensive collection of images, sketches, and models of his residential and commercial structures. Ando is the contemporary King of Concrete. While he shares the material choices and color palette of brutalism, he designs his spare structures to blur the line between indoors and outdoors – occasionally at the expense of occupants. His early Row House gained him notoriety for separating the bedroom from the rest of the house with an outdoor patio. His liberal use of floor-to-ceiling windows and high ceilings make for chilly winters. His clients acknowledge these difficulties but claim heightened awareness of their environments. His churches, pure utterances of his architectural philosophy, encourage worship by contemplating the buildings’ orifices, including a giant cross-shaped window. The Pulitzer Center for the Arts in St. Louis offers meditative views and warm spaces for both viewing art and relaxing with a book.

tadao ando row house
Row House, photo by eMag

His technique with glass and concrete creates the beautiful shadows, surprisingly intimate nooks, and stark facades for which many recognize his work. But Ando does much more than let the environment in through cracks and windows. He has demonstrated an affinity for both revitalizing historical buildings and prioritizing green space within his compositions. The Punta Della Dogana in Venice retains the original building’s exterior, with a remodeled interior complementing the museum’s contemporary art collection. The International Children’s Library in Tokyo features a glass addition extending from the existing building.

Ando’s concrete doesn’t necessarily conjure pastoral images, but he is a committed environmentalist. Ando recently made headlines for installing New York City’s largest living wall in a private residence. Foliage has always played prominently in his designs, especially for urban public spaces. His rejected proposal for Osaka’s Nakanoshima island incorporates lines of trees, living walls, and roof gardens among the city’s municipal government buildings. He is a founding member of the Setouchi Olive Foundation, dedicated to revitalizing the polluted Seto Inland Sea.

tadao ando punta della dogana
Punta Della Dogana

Rebuilding Their Environments

With his reliance on glass, concrete, and industrial appearances, Ando would appear to be at odds with Fujimori. But both share several fundamental principles, including their perspective on what constitutes an architectural practice. Ando insists that he considers all acts of creation and community enrichment as architecture – overlapping with Fujimori’s belief that members of the community and even the client should be involved in the process of construction. 

Each expresses their respect for the environment differently through their buildings, but their philosophies remain surprisingly the same. While Ando’s minimalism inhabits a much larger scale, both architects opt for unadorned planes and textured surfaces over complex, fragmented compositions. The two frequently make use of underground spaces, such as Ando’s classroom at the Benetton Fashion Institute or the piled earth burying the lobby at La Collina Ando and Fujimori each take their own approach to connecting people to the environment through architecture.

tadao ando fashion institute benetton
Benetton Fashion Institute, photo by Divisare

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