The Royal Academy's architecture exhibitions often turn out to be seminal events in defining the relationship between architecture and the public. 'Foster: Rogers: Stirling' was the first blast of the Modernist trumpet during the hegemony of Mrs Thatcher and Prince Charles; 'Living Bridges' fired general enthusiasm, and since the early 1980s, the Summer Show's inclusion of an 'architecture room' has been a steady drip of architecture into the bloodstream of public consciousness.
Tadao Ando's show 'Beyond Minimalism' does not live up to this distinguished heritage. The problems start with a cliched name; no one admits to being a minimalist these days - the aa called a show 'Beyond the Minimal' at the beginning of this year (and that dealt with Austrian architecture). They continue through an exhibition design where ambition outstrips budget and space - should it really recreate the Church of the Light in such flimsy materials? And they reach, I suggest, right up to the quality of the architecture.
It may be sacrilege to believe that Ando is not one of the world's greatest, and I freely confess that I have never seen an Ando building. However, I have seen Ronchamp. And against that the Church of the Light does not look quite so good. At Ronchamp the walls and roof take on a plasticity of enormous force. The floor slopes towards the altar and the sculptural shapes acquire a richness through the many directed and coloured light sources. Emotion and the beliefs of the Catholic Church work together.
Ando's church has one light source, in a shape which is, ultimately, programmatic. It certainly needs little from, or leaves little to, the imagination. The walls are flat (with those irritating studded indentations which feature so often in Ando buildings). The roof is merely a reflector of light entering through the window. Compared to Ronchamp, it is clumsy in form, cliched in motif and impoverished in effect. If you want an illustration of the same phenomenon, try listening to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater; then to Bach's St Matthew Passion. The first is good - even touching. But its range of emotion and musical skill is completely dwarfed by the second.
That's only one building, of course. But the Church on the Water is not much better. An 'entire glass wall,' the catalogue reminds us, 'slides open allowing in the sound of water, the fragrance of trees and the song of the birds; here people encounter nature directly.' Has Ando never heard of the logos, the essential point of Christian philosophy? With little of Plato or St John, the effect is more like Evelyn Waugh's Dr Kenworthy in The Loved One, who declared: 'My church shall have no walls. And so you see it today full of God's sunshine and fresh air, bird song and flowers . . .'
These, though, are mere churches. Surely his other works are better? Well, many seem to be found in dramatic natural settings: on islands close to water, atop steep slopes with commanding views. And, to be fair, they do often have some spectacular feature, a sculptural gesture which balances light and water. It's the spaces themselves which let the buildings down. Many are contemporary art museums, and the galleries Ando creates for mediocre examples are themselves ordinary: a staircase handrail or a floor finish dominates where one longs for something as evocative as a dead sheep or a pile of bricks. Herzog and de Meuron do it so much better.
These museums are themselves examples of the now discredited profligacy of Japan's post-war boom. Maybe they are a genuine attempt to develop an architectural response to the unthinkable, as so many decent, honest Victorian architects struggled to find new forms in nineteenth-century Britain. But in the light of recent events on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, it would be interesting to examine the connections between economic and cultural failure. If Ando and his cronies really had succeeded in finding a way of expressing contemporary life in relation to Japanese traditions, maybe they would not be staring into an abyss. Instead, Ando's additions to a clumsy Japanese attempt at an Arts and Crafts house are testimony to an ugly combination of economic folly and cultural hubris.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher