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RUSSELL SMITH

Tadao Ando, and the problem of architecture that's too good

Even great architects can have a clunker now and then as it would appear Tadao Ando is learning over his generally disliked design in downtown Manchester England.

Even great architects can have a clunker now and then as it would appear Tadao Ando is learning over his generally disliked design in downtown Manchester England.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Image

Russell Smith asks: Who gets to choose our public art, the experts or the uneducated who have to live in it?

A building in central Manchester, England, is about to be torn down. It is a public pavilion in a public square. It was built with much celebration by the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando, only 14 years ago. To have such a highbrow star creating public space at the centre of a city is a great coup for any community; it instills pride, may invite tourism, adds to a sense of international sophistication.

Problem was, the people of Manchester hated it. They didn't care how sophisticated it was: It was ugly. It had a lot of raw, grey concrete in it; people likened it to the Berlin Wall. TripAdvisor called it the city's worst tourist attraction. The city council has decided it will be replaced by a perfectly attractive but relatively bland retail/restaurant building.

There has been great consternation about what this means about the role of challenging architecture in a big city. "The Demolition of Tadao Ando's Only UK Building is the Architectural Tragedy of Our Time" declared the online magazine Architizer.

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This question preoccupies all of us: Who gets to choose our public art, the experts or the uneducated who have to live in it?

To understand the angst that this has caused city planners, you have to know how revered Tadao Ando is. The winner of the Pritzker Prize (1995) and creator of the glowing, breathtaking Church of the Light in Ibaraki, Japan, he is an architect's architect: His vast volumes are pure, pristine, full of open spaces and vistas, bright with natural light. They have been compared with haikus.

They are silent, meditative spaces, on the whole, meant to be integrated into impressive natural landscapes, but clearly non-natural themselves.

And his materials – well, they are daring. Ando loves concrete: tons and tons of smooth pure unpainted concrete. The effect of these miles of concrete is to meld a sense of spirituality with a reminder of the aggression of construction itself: it is a naked, unpretentious building material. So his projects merge the beautiful and the raw.

The concrete design was likened to the Berlin Wall; TripAdvisor called it in downtown Manchester’s worst tourist attraction.

The concrete design was likened to the Berlin Wall; TripAdvisor called it in downtown Manchester’s worst tourist attraction.

Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images

Is Ando a brutalist? Some of his buildings certainly echo that optimistic and unpopular mid-20th-century style, the style of 1960s universities and housing projects – his Pulitzer Arts Foundation, in St. Louis, Mo., for example – but generally he is not lumped in with that movement; his work just seems too ethereal, not hulking enough. And his concrete is different from brutalist concrete, in that it is not, generally, brut (raw). Ando coats many of his concrete surfaces with some kind of sealant or lacquer, making them smooth to the touch. I once heard an architect describe his concrete as "pillowy."

This sealant, for some reason, possibly economic, was not used to coat the large unadorned surfaces of the Manchester pavilion. That building, basically a shelter to house a small café, occupies half of Piccadilly Gardens, presenting one long curving blank wall of concrete to the south side. The concrete, under the steady British drizzle, did not wear well: it started to stain with dark streaks, to look like the depressing and crumbling masses of postwar brutalism, exactly what Manchester was sick of.

Opinions are divided on whether the destruction of the Ando building is a relief or an act of philistinism, an emblem of a consumer-driven society with no patience for things difficult or sophisticated. It comes, paradoxically, at a time of surging interest in brutalist buildings in Britain: Societies for the preservation of geometric concrete are sprouting throughout the country, along with picture books and tote bags and model kits portraying iconic loved/hated ugly/beautiful towers. (If I were in London this coming March 20, I would definitely attend, for example, a talk at the Geological Society titled "Concrete Fetishes," about this trend. Its subtitle is: "Brutalism thrives in blogs and coffee-table books, but has its radical social agenda been forgotten?")

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This is a big question: It is one that plagues every contest for public art. How much should we rely on the experts, whose taste tends toward the unwelcoming? To what extent should we push the challenging and sophisticated on a public that wants things to be pretty in a fairly simple way? And how sacred are the works of canonized artist/architects? If details are altered for practical reasons, is a work of art being defaced?

For some years in Toronto, there has been a debate about the mid-century modernist city hall, the curved building around a concrete flying saucer designed by Viljo Revell. The plaza in front of this building is partly surrounded by a squat and stolid raised concrete walkway. Lots of people want to tear this whole catwalk down, as it is just plum-ugly. It gets in the way of the square, visually, and doesn't have practical function (it is even closed during the winter months). But the walkway is part of the design by the sainted architect, and to destroy it is to interfere with his total vision.

How important does the architect have to be for his walkways to be considered inviolable? I wouldn't go remodelling Westminster Abbey, now would I? Any more than I would try to update any bits of the Mona Lisa.

But perhaps the problem with the unpopular Tadao Ando building in Manchester was not that it was too good for a simple-minded population. It was that it was not good enough. Great architecture actually does please people. The building was simply flawed: the concrete was not properly treated, the grim façade was too forbidding for a bustling city centre. It ended up being ugly and not in a sophisticated way. Even great artists can have off days. And people will call them on it.

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