Let's say Frank Gehry represents one end of the architectural spectrum, the shiny, exuberant, walls-that-do-the-hula end. The man on the opposite side--the serene, economical, subdued side--would have to be Japanese architect Tadao Ando. If Gehry's signature form is a whiplash, Ando's is a broad, flat plane. Gehry's best-known materials are titanium and glowing steel. Ando's is pale gray concrete.
Broad, flat, pale and gray may not sound like a formula for pleasure. But you don't know what pleasure is until you've seen Ando's Church of the Light near Osaka, Japan, where two intersecting slots in a rear wall admit sunlight in the form of a glowing cross. And then there's his triumphant Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, in Texas, a palisade of glass pavilions that touch down mysteriously on a broad reflecting pool.
What the 21st century should look like is still a contested question, but the contest is increasingly going to forms that are not broad, flat, pale and gray. In a world being radically reconfigured by Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, Ando represents the continuing relevance of a more reductive strain of 20th century Modernism. When the Fort Worth museum was commissioned, Ando, now 66, had built widely in Japan but not much outside. By the time it opened six years ago, he was firmly located on the international short list of architects that everybody was after.
But he hasn't completed another building in the U.S. until now. On June 22, his Stone Hill Center, a combination of galleries and art-conservation labs, opens at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the superb small museum and art-study center in Williamstown, Mass. It's exactly what you would expect from him. It's pale, gray, serene, economical, subdued and, from most angles, pretty splendid.
Mark Twain once said about rural England that it was "too absolutely beautiful to be left out of doors." He could have said the same about the Berkshires, where the Clark is set. More than any of his other American projects, the Stone Hill Center, which he worked on with the landscape designers Reed Hilderbrand Associates, has allowed Ando to set up the elegant interactions with nature he's known for in Japan. And in his way, he does indeed bring it indoors. In one gallery, a view of woodlands is abstracted--compressed and subdivided--by way of a window wall that looks out across a covered terrace. Outside, a squared archway in a freestanding diagonal wall creates a proscenium that turns earth and sky into a kind of cosmic theater.
Like everything else Ando does, this building calls to mind the delicacy and simplicity of traditional Japanese architecture. That he achieves that effect with concrete is the ever charming paradox of his work. But in that way, his buildings bear the mark of two 20th century Modernists he admires, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, who found in concrete an opportunity for blunt majesty and even a kind of lyricism. The minimalist Modernism that Ando practices may not be in vogue these days. But in the right hands, it still works wonders.
Steady Art Beat Richard Lacayo blogs daily about art and architecture at time.com/lookingaround