At Large  June 17, 2022  Cynthia Close

Wrightwood 659: Tadao Ando’s Brilliant Architectural Designs

© Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

View of the Tadao Ando-designed buildings (from left to right) Wrightwood 659 gallery (2018) and the Eychaner/ Lee House (1997) in Chicago.

Self-taught Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando designs Zen-like spaces to inspire contemplation while also supporting the idea that architecture can have a positive, transformational effect on society. He has stated, “to change the dwelling is to change the city and to reform society.” As a young man, Ando was impressed by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright,  Mies van der Rohe, and the design purity of Le Corbusier. Following a personal exploration of drawing and design, he opened his own firm, Tadao Ando Architects and Associates, in 1968, in Osaka, Japan.

Simplicity in structure and design is the key element in all of Ando’s commissions. His use of concrete as his primary material belies its density. He manages to create an airy weightless effect through the strategic use of glass, reflection, and light. His interior spaces are marked by geometric spatial organization and sharp contrasts of light and dark.

© Jeff Goldberg:Esto.

Exterior view of the Tadao Ando-designed gallery space Wrightwood 659 (2018), located in Chicago.

While his first notable structure was a private home built in Osaka, Japan in 1973 he did not design a freestanding building in the United States until the Eychaner/Lee House in Chicago in 1997.

It was commissioned by the notoriously private Chicago businessman and philanthropist Fred Eychaner who first saw Ando’s work at New York's Museum of Modern Art in a 1991 exhibition. Ando’s ability to create a sense of privacy within a densely packed urban environment appealed to Eychaner who contacted Ando in early 1992 and offered him his first project in the U.S. It took five years to complete. Ando’s serene aesthetic perfectly suited Eychaner’s shy personality.

The bunker-like appearance of the street-facing façade of the structure shields a surprisingly light and airy interior space. The property is on a tree-lined street in the historical section of the city next door to a brick apartment building constructed in 1929.

© Jeff Goldberg:Esto.

Interior of the Tadao Ando-designed Wrightwood 659 (2018) in Chicago.

More recently, Eychaner purchased the apartment building and hired Ando to retrofit the space to serve as a gallery for the exhibition of architecture and socially engaged art. Ando proceeded to gut the interior while maintaining the original brick façade. He added a glass-enclosed gallery set back from the front of the building as a fifth floor and a multi-story atrium that dramatically anchors the central core of the space. The final structure features Ando’s signature concrete slab construction with an adjoining staircase that is softened by filtered natural light and a wall of exposed brick recycled from the partial demolition of the original building.

© Jeff Goldberg:Esto.

Interior of the smaller gallery spaces at Wrightwood 659.

Now known as Wrightwood 659, this addition to Chicago’s cultural scene opened inauspiciously in 2018. The meticulously preserved exterior only hints at the dramatic renovation which can only be seen from the outside at night, through the lighted windows. The concrete interior surfaces are cured and polished, accented with stainless steel and glass. Besides the large, open, multistory spaces suitable for events, monumental sculpture, and exhibitions, the building features multiple white-cube galleries with track lighting for more traditional forms of Contemporary art. The inaugural exhibition of Wrightwood 659 featured the architectural work of both Ando and Le Corbusier.

In between the privately commissioned Eychaner/Lee house and the opening of Wrightwood 659, Ando designed over fifty-six major projects, eight of which are located in the United States. Completed in 2001, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri was his first design for a public building in the United States. It features Ando’s signature enigmatic concrete exterior walls. Theses were cast on the site during a nearly four-year construction period using methods that were not typical for American architecture at the time.

A review in Architecture Week described it as “both a serene setting for the contemplation of art and a contribution toward revitalizing the urban landscape of historic St. Louis.”

Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Garfield226.

Tadao Ando, Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (2001). St. Louis, Missouri.

Immediately following the opening of the Pulitzer project came the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas in 2002. The five-year design process produced an interior conducive to exhibiting contemporary art within its 53,000 square feet of space. The main building features three long pavilions set on a reflecting pond where they appear to float. In 2019, the museum was selected as The Best Designed Building in Texas by Architectural Digest.

In an illustrious career that has spanned more than forty years, Tadao Ando has earned the highest international awards afforded in architecture, including the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2002 and the Neutra Medal for Professional Excellence in 2012. Quite an achievement for any architect, especially for a self-taught artist.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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