As a veteran architect in high demand, Tadao Ando knows how he likes his press meetings to run. 'Give me three or four questions and I'll answer them in a row,' he says through his interpreter, before delivering a series of diplomatic cliches and being hurried away to his next gig. Ando can hardly be blamed for being perfunctory: he is just part of the way through a 24-hour publicity spree that includes a tour of local architecture, a speech at a business lunch, a series of interviews and an evening lecture at the University of Hong Kong to an arena of slack-jawed students. Despite his jaunty air and kindly eyes, the 67-year-old is tired. This schedule offers just a hint of the extent to which Ando finds himself in demand after 40 years in the business. His small, 30-strong design studio has whipped up projects around the world for clients from Armani to Unesco, and its trophy list is long. At the top of that list is the Pritzker, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel. 'Ando's architecture is an assemblage of artistically composed surprises in space and form,' noted the jury in 1995, when he was awarded the prize. 'There is never a predictable moment as one moves through his buildings.' Ando is often said to have reinvented the 'art of building', but few would have guessed such a future in 1969 when he set up his firm without formal college training. He simply taught himself, he says, by studying architecture around the world, from the landmarks of Finland and Siberia to those of Mumbai. But wedged between the cheap post-war duplexes of Sumiyoshi, Osaka, Ando's debut project gave a hint of things to come. It reworked Japan's skinny, low-income row house into a stark shield of concrete with a complex light-filled home hidden behind it. Ando later admitted the design was a retaliatory measure taken in response to the house he and his grandmother shared while he was growing up. 'After the second world war, I lived in a narrow, oblong, wooden two-storey row house,' he remembers in one book. 'Winters were so cold you could practically see the wind race through, and summers were stiflingly hot, admitting no breeze ... I grew enraged at society and felt inspired to improve living conditions.' Ando has continued to use architecture as a tool for social change, but his projects are also famous for their respect for materials - he likes them bare - and his sensitivity to nature. His buildings harness natural elements, with complex shadows giving depth to a wall, light creeping through a skylight or snow piling up against a window. His is a 'haiku effect', says professor Masao Furuyama. Like the Japanese form of poetry, his work is concise, traditional and about the changing seasons. His religious buildings, such as the Church on the Water and Church of the Light, have become iconic the world over for their almost spiritual use of the elements. Ando is in town to help promote a new project in Japan's snowy, northern Hokkaido. When finished in a few years Capella Niseko will have a 70-room hot-spring hotel and 149 residences, about two hours from the capital, Sapporo. It's only Ando's second resort. 'It was a new challenge,' he says, through friend and architect George Kunihiro. 'A totally new environment and climate, with world famous conditions of light snow powder from Siberia. I wanted to somehow incorporate this into my idea.' The resort makes use of Ando's favourite material, concrete, combined with glass, raw wood and stone in the shape of two intersecting rings that open up to a 360-degree view of the mountainside. It shares similarities with his first resort - an art museum and resort on Naoshima island - that he worked on for about 12 years. That resort, The Oval, has six guestrooms arranged around an elliptical garden, each with stunning views of the landscape. If you're going to travel somewhere, Ando seems to say, you should immerse yourself in the area completely. The architect says it's an interesting time for the Japanese tourism industry and that the country offers the best of a developed society, including hygiene and safety. He gives the impression that his decision to work on resorts is partly patriotic. It's a fair notion - the architect draws hordes of design buffs to the country each year. 'If you can't afford an Ando-designed house,' one fan exclaims in an online travel blog, 'at least you can stay in this hotel.' It is also an interesting time for architecture. Ando agrees with other designers who have welcomed the economic slowdown as a chance to produce more thoughtful work. 'It's going to be harder for buildings to be put up,' he says, 'but it's the kind of time when architects can really put energy into each project, to make it their best. Until a few months ago they were all working so quickly the quality of each building was probably not at the highest.' He believes that architecture will be able to help. During the Great Depression, world leaders took a page from the book of economist John Maynard Keynes, who had pushed public projects as a way to keep a struggling economy afloat. The period saw housing projects springing up in countries such as the US, Sweden and Britain, and the creation of landmark public buildings such as London's Royal Institute for British Architects. 'Maybe economists will come up with some ideas like this to overcome the depression,' he says. Yet despite his achievements Ando can't relax: he feels Japan's younger generation of architects barking at his heels. Unlike many stars, who tend to look down on young upstarts, Ando sees them as worthy adversaries. 'When you're at the top for a long time there's always someone new coming up. The younger generation is in demand, and they are the ones who are going to knock you out,' he says. Though he has kept his studio small and flexible, he still tries to stay aware of design trends. Still, at 67, can't he take it a little easier? '[Architect] Oscar Niemeyer worked until he was 102 years old. He got married when he was 75,' the designer says with a laugh. 'My clients Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld are at least 10 years older and they still have powerful personalities and high energy levels. This inspires me, so I'm sure I can keep going for at least another 10 years.' Perhaps next time he'll stay for dinner.