In praise of Tadao Ando at the Vitra Campus

The campus is simultaneously a fully operational production site and a field of experimentation for architecture and design.

Come in spring when the entire surroundings of the campus are enveloped by cherry blossoms (All photos: Vitra)

Design enthusiasts who visit the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein in Germany are spoilt for choice. The 25,000ha site, built by the Fehlbaum family who founded the celebrated furniture company, features works by many megawatt names. It is as if the design gods themselves built this architectural Olympus, for where else can one find such a collection of great names and structures?

There is a schaudepot (showhouse) designed by Herzog & de Meuron right by the campus’ entrance while Buckminster Fuller’s famous geodesic dome is in situ. Frank Gehry is the genius behind the Vitra Design Museum’s built-up collage of towers, ramps and cubes while the onsite (former) fire station was Dame Zaha Hadid’s first built and completed piece of work.


Architecture genius Tadao Ando

However, for those drawn to rawness and light, there is only one name to pay obeisance to here: Tadao Ando. The Osaka native remains the only one in the world to have won the architectural world’s, for want of a better term, Grand Slam of awards — the Pritzker, Carlsberg Arkitekturpris, Kyoto and Praemium Imperiale. He was greatly inspired by the great Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier. In an aside, Ando famously named his pet dog Corbusier.

The artistry of this self-taught icon needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. It is on the campus grounds that one may find their Zen as they make their way towards the Conference Pavilion, Ando’s first building outside of Japan. Set amid a grove of cherry trees, a subtle paean to the symbolism of sakura in Japanese culture, the modernist structure is a testament to his continuous pursuit of light. It is a moving experience following the trail, which resembles a monk’s footpath in a temple garden, but imagine making your way in springtime, meditating as you tread on a carpet of cherry blossom petals while the surrounding fields explode in a blush of pink all around you.


Light and shadow at play in Tadao Ando's Conference Pavilion at the Vitra Campus

Once inside the pavilion, Ando’s minimalist mastery of light and space comes to the fore. Cool, smooth concrete in his signature grid pattern, as well as trademark holes, serve as the backdrop against which light may play. For example, a small skylight elevates a simple nook into a place fit for prayer. The choice of lightweight Akari lamps by Isamu Noguchi adds to the organic luminosity of the pavilion.

It is sometimes hard to articulate the feeling of being in an Ando-crafted space. However, there is a word in Japanese – shizuka – that seems appropriate; it may be used to express silence, quietness or gentleness. If truly pressed for one in English, the word that comes to mind, over and over again, would simply be “peace”.


This article first appeared in issue No. 94, Winter 2019 of Haven


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