Tadao Ando’s Church of Light in Ibaraki, Japan.
I have had this experience twice before, when you walk into a place and have an overwhelming feeling of enlightenment. Once at the small temple located within Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia and once when I walked into the completely empty, decaying Athens Olympic stadium.
These are the moments in life you don’t expect to be great, however there are many you walk into with great expectations and these are the places, people, experiences which we are often disappointed by. I walked into Tadao Ando’s Church of Light in Ibaraki Japan with 9 years of architectural educational and practice worth of expectation and it did not disappoint.
Even my arrival was some sort of achievement; the church is located in a typical Japanese suburb, a cram of tradition and modernism on the outskirts of Osaka, that I had navigated the local train and bus to the point of suburban obscurity was the achievement. Then I had to hunt for the church. The siting and surrounds of the church is not a secret, it is described often in writings however I had chosen to ignore this and found myself surprised that the church wasn’t sitting alone on top a hill surrounded by beautifully manicured Japanese gardens.
The building is unassuming, it is not trying to be a great piece of modern architecture, it is just being a small church for a local congregation. That Ando was able to create the sense of escape this building has in its setting is testament to how Ando has resolved and refined the idea. The contrast between the haphazard suburban setting and the beautiful simplicity of the interior only heightens the experience of visiting this church.
I recently heard a talk by Kjetil Thorsen of Norwegian architectural firm Snohettta in which he discussed a principle of materiality where by you do not let more than three materials come into contact at one time, this building is an exemplar of this idea; Ando uses only concrete, glass and black painted timber. There is no symbolism or iconography so common to traditional churches, save the voided cross, this allows your own understanding of spirituality of the place to be the focus of attention.
As I sat and drew the light changed its position and intensity, there was no denying the outer world feeling this place has, regardless of religion, as the light streams in through the cross and onto the beautiful, yes beautiful, concrete.
When I am there it is late on a Saturday afternoon and predominantly the church is filled with architecture students taking photos and mucking around, as they leave I am left in this place on my own and I am struck by how quiet and sanctuary like the place is.
I visit the Sunday school built years later and imagine what it would be like filled with children- I can’t, it fells like these buildings were meant to be experienced in solitude, so that each of us can have whatever type of experience suits us, it doesn’t have to be spiritual- I can imagine it would be a great place to read a book or spend a day trying to capture sunlight on the concrete in a photograph. I can only guess as to how someone else would react, but I hope it does get added to the list of place to visit.