Pritzker Prize Laureate, Tadao Ando had once said that “You cannot simply put something into a place. You have to absorb what you see around you, what exists on the land, and then use that knowledge along with contemporary thinking to interpret what you see.”While on his way to becoming a professional boxer, he self-educated himself into the field of architecture, driven by his visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel. He is a Japanese prodigy, with his major design philosophy riding on three elephants. Amongst his many ambitious projects, The Church on the Water in Japan is one of the most familiar.
First being his inclination towards merging nature with the physical boundaries of space. Secondly, he was a celebrated modernist, where the use of perfect geometry and modern materials like concrete, glass, and iron was typical in all his buildings. He was also known as the “poet in concrete”, as he effortlessly uses it and makes it look delicate like a feather. And lastly, he embodies the concept of minimalism, where his only ornamentation is the beautiful and patterned influx of light through his slit walls, huge voids, and openings. With a body of work that is internationally recognized, he has set a benchmark for most of the aspiring young architects.
About the Project
The Church on the water is a small chapel that belongs to the Alpha Resort Hotel and is a trending destination for weddings located in Shimukappu, Japan. It was built in 1985 and as a sacred place, it is subliminal and in complete contrast with the overshadowing presence of the resort in its west, but slickly blends with the landscape in its east.
For this altar, Ando has contrived two geometrical concrete cubes in an interlocking spatial relationship and placed them on the edge of a manmade pond that lies in the foreground of birch trees and mountains, and appears to merge in the river flowing through. The perfect siting of this altar amidst the bushy greens, allows him to use the popular Japanese concept of “Shakkei”. “Shakkei” means ”borrowed scenery” that is using the natural surroundings like the hills, rivers, and scenic views as a part of the constructed landscape or interiors. Over here, he authenticates the above concept by stripping the altar wall into a floor to ceiling operable glass wall and places a steel cross behind the wall in the pond, allowing the people transparency and letting them experience the efficacy of the supreme power, by witnessing the changing colors of the Mother Nature via the opening. Through his design of this space, he gives the user a feeling of nothingness and yet completeness. Also, the shadow of the cross momentary adds a dramatic play of light inside the interiors.
A long L-shaped concrete wall separates the altar from the resort in the east and creates a mystery for the onlooker, as he waits to walk past the wall and behold the beauty of the church. It also provides the altar, sacred privacy. The entrance to the primary area is from the smaller cube made of steel and glass through an ascending flight of steps. This cube has four concrete crosses, framing the space on all the four edges. Ironically, these crosses are the only clear symbol of the traditional church architecture in this otherwise modern block. These crosses are 150cm thick and point in the four cardinal directions.
Further, the entrance to the bigger cube that houses the chapel is through a dark spiral staircase, which lies in the overlapping area of the two cubes. The chapel overlooks a huge artificial pond, that holds the significant steel cross, withstanding all the forces of nature. The pond is 45 meters by 90 meters in dimension and is made physically limitless to the visitors to maintain its sanctity, by constructing green platforms all around. Next to the chapel lies a portico, which holds a beam of 15.9 meters to house the operable glass altar wall, when it is slid for a windowless experience. Below the glass cube, there are three hidden waiting rooms, below which is the ancillary area which sites the boilers to maintain the temperature of the chapel.
As mentioned earlier, Ando was the harbinger of modernity and applied modern materials like Reinforced Concrete, Glass, and Iron. In this Church on the water, he has used in situ concrete for the structure, which has glass walls as infills. The brutality and roughness of concrete are fragmented by the use of glass, hence giving the altar a voluminous and an openness. The interior of the chapel is subtle and has the floor made of granite slabs and elegant wooden furniture. The exposed concrete walls are subjective to Ando’s style and pep up when struck with sunlight. The chapel also houses two wooden chairs, reinstating the design by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Ando was a dramatic architect and loved creating a stage show in the mind of the users. When walking along with the L-shaped wall, one can hear the sound of a waterfall, only to expect a serene pond at the entrance. He has accomplished this by creating a staggered pond over which when the water flows, it makes a bubbling sound. His design proves that good design is an art of working on the details, as he submerges the titular glass wall in the water, just to maintain the continuity of the infinity and allow the user an unobstructed interpretation of the “Shakkei”. His concrete walls were 90cm thick with thermal coatings, to counter the bitter cold on the island of Hokkaido.
To conclude with an icing on the top let us encore a quote by Tadao Ando, “I don’t believe architecture has to speak too much. It should remain silent and let nature in the guise of sunlight and wind.”