A Temple Reborn

Issue 39, Volume 2 :: by Tadao Ando; Photographs by Mitsuo Matsuoka

The Komyo-ji Temple is a reconstruction of a Pure Land temple (Pure Land is a dominant form of Buddhism) dating from the Edo period (1606-1867). Its site is on the eastern side of Saijo City in Ehime Prefecture. A small city on the Inland Sea, blessed with a mild climate, Saijo is known as the entrance to Mt. Ishizuchi, at 1,982 meters the highest mountain in Western Japan. Natural springs are everywhere, and the city is crisscrossed by a network of waterways brimming with fresh mountain water.

About 250 years had passed since the construction of the main temple and it was no longer able to withstand the assaults of time. It was to be rebuilt, together with an adjoining guest hall and priests’ quarters. From the temple’s standpoint this was a monumental undertaking, one that would go down in its history. Nevertheless, the temple’s chief priest (the client) had no requirements regarding the architecture. He simply explained the general program and said he would like it to be “a temple where people will come to gather together, a temple that is open to the community.”

We proposed for the new temple a main building of wood, shrouded in gentle light and floating over water. In the overall configuration, the new wooden main building, with the guest hall, chapel, priests’ quarters, and other ancillary buildings, floats over a spring-fed pond. This arrangement stresses above all the material wood, with water as the essential feature of the local landscape. The main theme is an exploration of a space in wood. Though we did need to be preoccupied with an existing style of temple architecture, we did wish to respect what had been built up through history.

The essence of traditional Japanese wooden architecture, in my view, is “assembly.” A tremendous number of wooden parts are cut for a single building, and the building takes shape as these parts are assembled and fitted together. For examples of how this configuration was refined to an extreme degree to realize a powerful structural beauty, we looked to the Nandaimon (great south gate) of Todai-ji Temple and to Jodo-do of Jodo-ji Temple, by the medieval monk Chogen. I wanted to create a space that would return to the origins of wooden architecture. It would be a single structure made up of multiple parts, each full of tension. I also felt that it would, like the framework of the main building, express the image of people gathering and joining hands, supporting each other in a single community.

After considering various alternatives, the scheme we devised for the main building was a large space, with three layers of interlocking beams supported by 16 columns in four groups. The circumference has, first of all, a screen of frosted glass, then a corridor around the screen, and then a latticed exterior wall around the corridor. It is a configuration that is doubly surrounded from the outside. The latticed exterior wall has posts of 15 x 21 centimeters (6 x 8 inches) at 15-centimeter intervals, with glass inserted between the posts. This results in an indeterminate demarcation between interior and exterior. Light filters through the latticed exterior wall to fill the interior with soft, natural illumination. It is a bright, open, and ceremonious space.

Inside events are also transmitted indistinctly to the outside. At night, the mystical appearance of the main building, with light overflowing from the interior, is reflected by the waters of the spring-fed pond. Aside from the fact that it is a wooden structure and that the roof has gently sloping eaves at its edges, this building has almost nothing in common with traditional Japanese wooden architecture; it is made completely of laminated timber. This was the result of our search for structural methods which, while inheriting the spirit of “assembly” from traditional Japanese architecture, would be simple, logical, and in line with contemporary building technologies. Laminated timber is extremely effective because it provides material uniformity and especially because it allows all of the wood to be used with no waste. Since the material itself is made up by layering smaller parts, it seemed especially appropriate to the intent of this design.

Every attempt was made to leave the stone walls and trees around the site undisturbed. We were given permission to demolish the main gate and bell tower, but we preferred to leave them in their original locations, in their original state. Of course, refraining from modifications to the existing site lowers the degree of freedom in the design and leads to troublesome problems. In this design, the decision to leave the bell tower near the entrance meant that the original purely geometrical plan for the approach along the pond would not fit. Finally, we decided to abandon pure geometry and take a course around the bell tower.

When the whole project was finished, these unanticipated parts fit in surprisingly well. They gave depth to the whole architectural space and functioned as important elements. Instead of following a uniform logic to the end, here was an opportunity to accept the memory of the place and hold repeated conversations with the site while assembling the architecture.

The process of building the Komyo-ji Temple was a chance to rediscover and become conscious of the origins of my own architectural methods: water and wood, history and landscape. I hope that it becomes a place where a variety of elements come together and speak to the visitor.

An internationally celebrated architect, Tadao Ando has designed a number of religious buildings in his native Japan.

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