Church of the Light seen on a Tokyo Private Tour

Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light in Tokyo

The Church of the Light is widely regarded to be a masterpiece of modern religious architecture, and a defining work of revered Japanese architect Tadao Ando. We take a detailed look at this iconic work, the centrepiece of a comprehensive retrospective which opened today at the National Art Centre, Tokyo.   

The Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church is a Protestant Church, a member of the United Church of Christ in Japan. Its main chapel, the Church of the Light (光の教会) was completed in 1989 at the behest of Reverend Noboru Karukome. It was built on a budget of $250,000, which was raised by the congregation, out of Ando’s signature reinforced concrete and wood.

The structure is remarkably simple – a rectangular box with an intersecting freestanding wall cutting in at 15 degrees, with floor and pews of blackened cedar made from re-purposed scaffolding used in the construction.  

A cross cuts through the entire east-facing wall, which aligns perfectly with the joints in the concrete, allowing a cruciform of light to penetrate the stark interior.

Church of the Light exterior seen on a Tokyo Architecture Tour

The exterior of the Church of the Light replica at the NACT

However, this concept poses unique structural challenges. The upper part of the walls of the cross, which weigh close to 10 tons, are completely disconnected from the lower part so the upper walls needed to be supported from above. In order to keep construction costs within budget the builders suggested keeping the upper and lower sections connected by leaving small supports on either side. Ando refused and instead used substantial amounts of expensive, reinforced steel to support the upper walls. Despite the project’s small budget, he needed to realise his vision as he conceived it.

The reinforced concrete walls of the Church of the Light are 15 inches thick, providing almost complete isolation from the outside. The walls are kept bare, very much in line with Ando’s minimalist aesthetic. Concrete is often perceived as an inhuman and cold material. It certainly doesn’t help that it is intrinsically associated with the architectural movement known as ‘brutalism’. However, what makes Ando’s architecture such a joy is that his concrete is a beautiful thing. His expertise turns this everyday material into a polished, luminous, reflective surface. It absorbs, diffuses and dissolves the light.

Visiting the original Church is becoming increasingly difficult. They don’t take phone calls, and they do not accept visits from travel companies. You need to make a reservation via a form on the church’s website, and the next available date may be for several months in the future. If you get there, remember there are no tripods and no wedding dress photos allowed.

This is all quite understandable considering it is a place of worship. Luckily, the National Art Centre in Tokyo has built a full-scale replica of the church, at a cost of $700,000, for its Tadao Ando retrospective which ends on 18 December 2017.  

The congregation at the NACT seen on one of our Tokyo Architecture Tours

The ‘congregation’ at the Church of the Light at the NACT

In fact, the copy goes one better. The glass which fills the cross in the original has been removed. Ando, in characteristic fashion, wanted both wind and light to enter the church. The Church on the other hand wanted some protection from the elements for its congregation. After construction, Ando visited regularly to convince the client to remove the glass, but no luck.  

As the Church’s website puts it, “Ando has finally removed the Glass of the Cross that he is eager to get rid of. The Copy reflects Ando’s spirit more than the original one!! So, those who are interested in only Ando’s works do not need to visit our church.”

Luckily, those who are interested in Ando’s works will get much more than just the Church of the Light replica at the NACT. The exhibition, part of their 10 year anniversary celebrations, provides a full scale retrospective of Ando’s career with over 200 sketches, drawings, photographs and models on display in exhibition spaces designed by the architect himself. Starting with his transition from boxer to self-taught architect via his worldwide travels, it continues with his first housing oeuvres which began sealing his reputation. The journey continues through his emblematic domestic and international projects. There is a section dedicated to his ongoing work on Naoshima where you can clearly see Ando’s philosophy of in action.  There is also a look at some of Ando’s latest in-progress project which include transforming Paris’ Bourse de Commerce into an art museum.

Naomshima wooddchip reaction seen on our Tokyo Architecture Tour

Naoshima woodchip reaction

Considered one of the world’s ‘starchitects’, this journey retracing Ando’s footprints lets you gain an appreciation for the character of the man himself. The final section, “Nurturing”, highlights Ando’s social initiatives and his efforts to support environmental restoration programs. It’s an apt conclusion for an architect who believes that ‘building making = environment making’.

‘Tadao Ando: Endeavors’ continues at The National Art Center in Tokyo until 18 December 2017.

Guests on our Private Tours explore the diverse and unique architecture, by Ando and others, which makes Tokyo the World’s Greatest Metropolis. Join us! Email to begin your journey.

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