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Name   Church on the Water (水の教会)
Architects   ANDO, TADAO
Date   1985-1988
Address   Nakatomamu, Shimukappu, Yufutsu District, Hokkaido , JAPAN, 079-2204
Floor Plan    

Tadao Ando’s Church on the Water (1988) signaled a critical shift in the designer’s approach and for that reason was widely heralded in the international press. Ando’s earlier residential works were structured private domains that were isolated from their surrounding urban contexts. The chapel, however, was a communal building designed for an idealized landscape, Ando’s response to an earlier chapel on Mount Rokko (1986), rather than for a specific site or client. This is why published presentation drawings do not reflect the realities of the site, a point that would be otherwise odd, considering the importance of nature in the design. It is also the reason that such a long period passed between the building’s design in 1985 and its construction in Hokkaido in 1988.

In the Church on the Water, nature becomes an active force. The sanctuary is essentially an open-ended shallow box, overwhelmed by a flat artificial pool. When the only separation between the two territories, a large glass wall, is rolled to the side, it erases any distinction between interior and exterior. Notably, this is also the only one of Ando’s churches in which the altar area is depressed rather than raised, a gesture that increases the sense of spatial continuity and that is echoed in shallow terraces in the pond.

In the 1986 essay “Mutual Independence, Mutual Interpenetration,” Ando wrote, “Within a site, architecture tries to dominate emptiness, but at the same time emptiness dominates the architecture. If a building is to be autonomous and have its own character, not only the building but the emptiness itself must have its own logic.” There are clear parallels between Martin Heidegger and Eastern thought that make it difficult to determine the roots of Ando’s phenomenology, but this character of nothingness, found in the blank pool, holds an important place in both philosophical systems. It is not God but, rather, man in nature that is the focus of this chapel. As Ando declared, “To experience God in this natural setting, perhaps, is to experience the encounter with one’s own spirit” (Ando, 1989). Elsewhere, Ando goes further: “For me, the nature that a sacred space must relate to is man-made, or rather an architecturalized nature. I believe that when greenery, water, light or wind is abstracted from nature-as-is according to man’s will, it approaches the sacred” (Ando, 1991).

The building was intended not as a religious structure but simply as a commercial chapel for wedding services. In a country where only an infinitesimal percentage of the population is Christian, the fashion of having “Christian” weddings is merely a reflection of Westernization. Thus, many of the conventional accoutrements of a church are unnecessary, in keeping with Ando’s characteristic ascetic minimalism. With economic pros-perity in the 1980s, young Japanese also embraced the larger Christian wedding ceremony as an opportunity for display. As a result, Ando’s wedding chapels share with several other projects from the 1980s an irony: although he established a critical attitude in opposition to the comfort and decorative tendencies in architecture of the period, his works were embraced by the very consumer culture he denounced.

Some critics have implied that this was merely a “radical chic” gesture by fashionable Japanese, but it is worth noting that Ando’s work was also compatible with a narcissism characteristic of the time. In 1986, Ando was developing a conception of space based on the physicality of the body and the use of the walls and floors as framing devices, articulated in his 1988 Englishlanguage piece “Shintai and Space.” In Japanese, the word shintai has three meanings; the most common use of the word refers to religious icons and other objects intended for worship. In addition, the word indicates one’s own body or a course of action. Had Ando used Japanese characters in writing his piece, he would have had to choose one of these meanings. In English, it was possible for him to fuse them; he explains that shintai refers not only to the body but also to “spirit and flesh” and declares that the genus loci of a site is grasped only through the shintai.

It is difficult not to measure the space with one’s body. Small granite pavers in the sanctuary are only slightly more than shoulders’ span in length. The markings of formwork on Ando’s trademark concrete walls are the size of a single bed, and because the walls of this building are almost three feet thick, the imprints of form-tie separator cones are very close together. Risers are shallow and benches low, and the chairs for the nervous bride and groom are fragile perches. Thus, despite Ando’s austere and even brutish use of unfinished concrete, the building has a delicacy and human scale.

Kenneth Frampton notes that the Church on the Water was “patently influenced” by Kaija and Heikki Siren’s Otaniemi Chapel (1957) for the Helsinki Institute of Technology. The building is less often considered in literature today because the concepts that Ando initiated here are more skillfully carried out in subsequent works. The religious implications of architecture as a site for the body in nature are more convincingly executed in the later Water Temple (1992). The shallow proportions of the Church on the Water’s sanctuary led to Ando’s many outdoor amphitheaters, in which inconsequential stages and the lack of a backdrop make nature the real drama—including the first, the Theater on the Water (1987), planned for another site at the same Hokkaido resort. Even the avatar-like cross standing in the pool and the framework of crosses on the roof of the church later reemerged as freestanding colonnades forming spatial filters in Ando’s works from the late 1980s.

Francesco Dal Co has written that Ando is “completing building after building with astonishing speed, but only able to do so by falling back on the design and conceptual procedures he had worked out in earlier researches.” In this designer’s work, it is often not the variations on concepts that are of interest but their genesis. More than 15 years after its completion, the Church on the Water remains a source of inspiration for the architect; it is clearly the model for Ando’s Chapel of the Sea, completed at the end of 1999 as part of the Awaji Island Yume Butai.



Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2004.

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