Tadao Ando first came to international attention in the 1970s with houses inserted into the dense fabric of busy Japanese cities, in particular the sprawling Osaka conurbation. This urban reality is a condition that frequently appears chaotic or discordant to Western eyes. Ando’s houses responded to their context through introversion; they often seem cut off or removed from the outside world, with the exception of certain, carefully framed views of nature or of the sky.
These early structures were also typically made from poured-in-place concrete with the circular indentations - tie holes - that result from concrete shuttering blatantly on view. Indeed this meticulous tailoring of an everyday material and of construction methodology gave Ando’s planar surfaces a unique character, finish and measurement. For Ando, the material used to frame space and that material’s structural needs are inextricably linked. Although sometimes classified as a minimalist, Ando’s concerns are less to do with style or look than with the truth and the potential of materials and of light.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Osaka-based architect finessed the use of concrete, a substance often regarded as lacking in nobility, so that it quickly became his signature material. Not only that, architects around the world began to use concrete in similar ways. If one thinks of Ando as a critical regionalist, or as a master architect helping to evolve the culture of modernism, many of these other architects were in effect quoting his work, using exposed concrete primarily as a signifier for contemporaneity, a strange Postmodernism twist thanks to the dissemination of Ando’s work through global media.
Mexico was no different. From the early 1990s onward, residential, retail and boutique office buildings began to appear in the more affluent zones of Mexican cities that mixed concrete, glass and metal almost as a montage of “designer buildings”, of intercontinental fashionability. Few of these buildings held much surprise (they could as easily be in Sydney or Tel Aviv or Luxembourg). At Tadao Ando’s buildings - at the real thing, as it were - there is a kind of shock. The visitor somehow feels simultaneously challenged and comforted. There is a blunt yet elegant essence to Ando’s architecture that resists mimicry or simulation.
The house in Monterrey is Ando’s first completed building in Mexico. It emerges from a steep, wooded hillside, part of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The new house looks north across an affluent suburb called San Pedro Garza García and, to the east, downtown Monterrey. Monterrey is an industrial-commercial metropolis extending along the Santa Catarina river as it flows east, almost out of sight below an embankment, to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a business-like place given special character by mountainous terrain to the south, much of it now a national park, and by dramatic, isolated outcrops to the north.
You approach the new house by ascending from the urban grid of San Pedro Garza García, rising up through the lower reach of the forest, zigzagging back-and-forth on a switchback road. Occasionally you see glimpses of other new houses, including one by Tatiana Bilbao, nestled between the trees. Although accessed from the tip of a tight hairpin bend, the large house by Ando almost retreats from view. You are led along the linear vector of a bridge with one solid wall to offer shade and to teasingly screen out the view. Family members can also enter beneath an outhouse pavilion - the first of several habitable bars of accommodation made from poured-in-place concrete - into an open forecourt.
Ando’s site plan combines orthogonality with a radical introduction of linear elements that slice through the grid at forty-five degrees. Since those early concrete structures inserted into the fabric of Osaka, Ando has been a master of rectangular geometry. On occasion, a diagonal wall will enliven these essentially stiff structures, both by breaking through the box and by introducing light and its reflection in tantalizing ways. In larger projects, such as the Langen Foundation at Hombroich in Germany or the visitor center at Château la Coste in the South of France, walls, pathways and lines of pillars are stretched to break open the architectural box and engage the natural landscape.
In Monterrey, the house becomes progressively private as you move across the site. It’s not only a case of plan, however, as the site falls towards the north and the city below. You descend to discover the house’s principal space in the diagonal cutting through the central square in plan. This double-height, elongated hall is entirely glazed along its north façade and looks immediately into a triangular ornamental pool with pebbles or stones collected from Indonesia. The facing flank of this remarkable hall - pressed, if only psychologically, against the hillside - is a contiguous bookshelf assembled from square modules.
The hall connects an upper entrance hall, currently home to a sculpture by Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, with bedrooms and family rooms on the lower level. The mezzanine in the hall functions as a very elegant dining room. An exposed concrete stairs descends against the great window with the skinniest of metal handrails on one side only. The lower floor is made from warm oak, as is the vast bookshelf unit (which can also house artwork and mementoes). This almost geological sense of library wall is present in other recent projects by Ando including the Ryotaro Shiba Memorial Museum in the eastern suburbs of Osaka.
This is a much larger house than those that made Ando’s name early in his career. Here, in Mexico, he plays with enclosure and exposure as you proceed and descend across the site. Might he have noticed the not-dissimilar manipulation of wall surface - walls of light and walls of shade - by Mexico’s own master, Luis Barragán, several decades ago? Conversely, the construction team in Monterrey seems to have applied itself to Ando’s requirements with diligence and enthusiasm. Floors and extensive roof terraces are laid in elongated planks (typically 30 x 90 centimeters) of grey Colombino sandstone.
The entire structure has a topographical sensibility, open to the sky and to cooler northerly aspects. Inside, the daughter of Ando’s clients has colonized one of the residual, triangular pockets of space as a cave-like play space. Outside, balustrades are made from vertical, frameless plates of glass. The eye is allowed wander and rest.
The sequence culminates in a sleek swimming pool, cantilevering out above the trees as the final orthogonal and ultimately ludic element in Ando’s complex composition.