Sensory Masterpiece: Church of the Light by Tadao Ando in Ibaraki (1991)
Tadao Ando’s probably most renowned building easily escapes notice. Ibaraki Kasugaoka Kyōkai, better known the world over by its English name: “Church of the Light”, is located in a housing area 25 kilometres away from downtown Osaka and fairly close to the 1970 Expo grounds. With its 113-square-metre floor area, the church building completed in 1989 is little larger than a house – not particularly surprising in a country where Christians barely make up 1 percent of the population. ”For most Japanese … a church is primarily a place for getting married the western way,” wrote Keiko Arima in his 2011 article on the Church of the Light in Detail. As early as the seventies, the self-taught architect Ando was already making a global name for himself with his predilection for complex geometries, accomplished use of light and finely worked fair-faced concrete surfaces. He took this approach and condensed it to its essence in the tiny space of the Ibaraki church, in the process displaying none of the infatuation with shapes that characterises some of his larger buildings.
Cruciform of light
The simple rectangular concrete building at a crossroads is approx. 18 metres long, 6 metres wide and 7 metres high. Ando did not place the entrance at the front but at one of the sides, where it opens onto a small pointed vestibule, set apart from the main church area by an almost ceiling-high fair-faced concrete wall that cuts into the volume at a 15° angle. The nave widens out horizontally, while the oak floor and pews ascend in step-like manner, introducing a sense of verticality towards the altar wall. A cruciform made up of 25 centimetres slit windows marks the wall, filling it from top to bottom and side to side and forming four segments in what is the sole yet predominant element of Christian iconography in the interior. In a truly inspired way, Ando expressed the purpose of the building with architectural means alone. The contrast of light and dark that determines this “crucifix of light”, one that cannot fail to be noticed in photographs, is heightened further by aligning the altar wall to the south-east, and not to the east as usual for a church. On the walls and ceiling, Ando used his “signature material”, namely fair-faced concrete, lent structure by formwork panels in the tatami size of approx. 90 x 180 centimetres, and precisely positioned down to the last millimetre. Ando remained true to his design principles in the ensuring years, as can be verified next to the Ibaraki church, where the architect, now a Pritzker laureate, placed an equally finely worked Sunday school for the church community shortly before the end of the last century.