Magazine article The Spectator

Communing with Nature

Magazine article The Spectator

Communing with Nature

Article excerpt


Beyond Minimalism (Royal Academy, till 1 November)

Tony Fretton (Architectural Association, till 31 October)

As soon as a style label is found in architecture, there is a rush for the exit. Minimalism was a term borrowed from painting and sculpture and applied to architecture, in the same way that postmodernism was a term borrowed from literary theory. Nobody now wants to be called a post-modernist, and although minimalism has had a good run for its money in the past five years, this too is beginning to look rather commonplace, associated with Sunday newspaper property features on loft conversions. Hence, no doubt, the choice of the title Beyond Minimalism for the exhibition of the Japanese architect Tadao Ando at the Royal Academy.

The group of works categorised as minimalist nonetheless represents an important reorientation within modern architecture, which can be traced back through the whole history of the century. From the declaration by Adolf Loos in 1910 that, in the sphere of architecture, only the tomb and the monument can be counted as art, there has been a transcendental stream within modernism that has denied speed, technology and social purpose in favour of contemplating eternity. In place of the evolutionary concept of progress in art and society, there is an inward search for essentials. Inspired in part by the writings of the phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, modern architects who have followed this path, which often leads, figuratively, to an idealised Japan, a place of timeless communion with nature.

The results stand on a narrow line between beauty and pretentiousness, and the sense of which side they fall depends largely on the context in which the work is placed. Ando has designed a number of churches which, from photographs and drawings, seem to be genuinely moving. He has written a defiantly anti-progressive statement for the exhibition catalogue about his anxiety over the globalisation of culture and its materialist values. `This tends to make buildings around the globe essentially the same and, like a dull and repetitious lifestyle, mundane and boring.' Ando's buildings often take on the character of monumental ruins, where the outside space carries some apparent memory of former civilisations. They are soberingly solid, a ballast against the millennium jitters. …

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