One of the most influential architects today, the Japanese autodidact Tadao Ando (1941, Osaka) is a master of paradox. His works intermingle simplicity with mystery, globalization with roots, dead matter with personality, rationality with wild nature. No wonder that many of the most recent monographs on contemporary sacred space include references to his oeuvre. His four modest chapels (1986-1993) belong to the United Church of Christ in Japan, founded in 1942 in order to integrate Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, and Baptist denominations, following a directive of the ultra-nationalistic government. Today, these buildings still have such a contemporary character it is surprising that they are already more than 20 years old.
Ando’s work is unmistakably spiritual, even for a non-believer. One does not need to look for his religious work to notice this: his secular work, including museums and houses, also radiates a solid, silent, personal and cosmic spirituality. Great architecture is spiritual, no matter if its subject matter is religious or not.
Ando’s most famous Christian buildings are without doubt the Church on the Water in Tomamu (1988) and the Church of the Light in Ibaraki near Osaka (1989). Both chapels are extraordinary statements about the ineffable that breaks into our world. Even photographs cannot hide the fact that these buildings effectively make room for the ineffable. That is the power of great architecture: when even two-dimensional renderings cannot diminish the extraordinary power of man-made places. This is architecture at its best.
At first glance, all four of his chapels seem to be empty Modernist boxes, the ones we abhor so much nowadays, having rightly compared many twentieth-century churches to underground garages. It might be surprising and revealing that Ando’s language for communicating the ineffable is extremely minimalist. Bare concrete happens to be Ando’s favorite material. He goes so far in his preference for this material that he brings its inherent potential to life. Ando polishes his hard, cold, and gray concrete walls until they are smooth, shining, and precious as silk. As such, he uses one of the lowest materials to sing about the highest truths in life. This is the extraordinary paradox of his work, why it received the epithet of “secular spirituality” from the famous British architectural critic Kenneth Frampton.
One could say that his characteristic is immense respect: respect for the cosmos, respect for the material (even such a despised one as bare concrete), respect for architecture, respect for human life and its mystery. Yes, he creates space for mystery. That does not mean that he goes beyond his field by trying to be a theologian. Nevertheless, his work is immensely theological precisely because it is architecture at its best. Many commentators have underlined the spiritual character of his buildings. Of course, this has roots in his Japanese culture.
But instead of laying bare these roots, my contribution will be more restrained. In this article, I propose to focus on only one paradigmatic symbol for contemporary church architecture, namely the cross, when it becomes part of minimalist architecture in a Japanese context. I am interested in what then happens to the cross as Christian symbol. I argue that this symbol becomes enriched, without losing anything of its Christian depth, because Ando is a genius in creating universal statements about human life in general.
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