Ando’s Cross

Volume 47, Issue 2 :: By Bert Daelemans, S.J.

The Christian Symbol Between Representation and Expression in Tadao Ando’s Churches

One of the most influential architects today, the Japanese autodidact Tadao Ando, creates “complex works of extreme simplicity that are rooted in and yet transcend their regionality.”1  Many of the most recent monographs on contemporary sacred space include references to his oeuvre.2  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. These buildings, already more than 20 years old, still have a surprisingly contemporary character.

The Church of the Light

The Church of the Light makes a cross out of luminance against darkness.
Photo: Mith Huang/flickr

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 restrain the fact that these buildings effectively make room for the ineffable. 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 much of 20th-century churches to underground garages. It may 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 article’s focus is 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 believe 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.

The Church on the Water

The focus of the Church on the Water is a dominant but inaccessible cross.
Photo: Miki Yoshihito/flickr

Moreover, the scope of this approach is limited because I won’t delve into the practical or liturgical issues of his churches. There is no tangible evolution in the liturgical setting of Ando’s chapels, being classical longitudinal spaces of two rows of pews with a central aisle leading to an empty space with a movable table and lectern. Ando is no liturgist; his intention is not to explore possibilities of liturgical renewal; his work is more phenomenological. What follows will thus bring to light the power of architecture independent of the liturgical function, which is, in this Protestant case, to gather a community around the proclaimed, preached, and praised Word.

However, Ando has done something more than make space for gathering: he has created monuments and moments for contemplation. These chapels are instruments for inwardness, stillness, and prayer. From themselves, they evoke so much power that any other function becomes secondary. Ando’s strength is to transform us from observers to participants. He starts by placing us in a comfortable position of distant observer. But gradually, one is gently taken in by a fascinating architectural event that opens itself and us to greater things. Both chapels could be compared to a camera: Ando frames a specific part of nature, a landscape in Tomamu, and pure light in Ibaraki. With bare concrete, visibly the most manmade material, he places a strange element in the cosmos. This functions as a camera to observe the ineffable depth present in the cosmos. Gradually, one makes abstraction of the box and participates in being. Ando has an immense respect for the spirit of the place:

A site possesses its own physical and geographical character; at the same time it has layers of memory imprinted on it. I always listen to the whispering voice of a given place. I think of it comprehensively with all its forces – the visible characteristics as well as the invisible memories to do with interaction of a locality and humankind. And I try to integrate these into my building which shall carry that spirit to latter generations.3

This could still be understood as mere pantheism, seeing the cosmos as divine, in the sense of reducing the divine to the cosmos. However, Ando is more of a panentheist, by laying bare the divine within the cosmos and not necessarily identifying them. The latter, obviously, and not the former, is compatible with Christian theology. What Ando does with the cross as sole Christian symbol in his churches is not incompatible with this cosmic or “secular spirituality.” By placing this Christian symbol in a cosmic context, he enriches it instead of denying it “in favor of a cosmogonic spirituality” and overlaying it “with a symbolic nature worship,” as Kenneth Frampton thought.4

People make abstraction of the box because it is not Ando’s intention to focus on the box, which is a mere medium for an experience of the observing body – in Japanese, shintai:

The body articulates the world. At the same time, the body is articulated by the world. When ‘I’ perceive the concrete to be something cold and hard, ‘I’ recognize the body as something warm and soft. In this way, the body in its dynamic relationship with the world becomes the shintai. It is only the shintai in this sense that builds or understands architecture. The shintai is a sentient being that responds to the world.5

In the Church on Mount Rokko (1986) and the Church at Tarumi (1993), Ando places a cross on the rear wall. On Mount Rokko, this cross is slender and metallic; in Tarumi it is massive and made of wood. The cross is the only tool for designating these edifices formally as Christian. As such, Ando uses it merely as representational sign, to decode the buildings as Christian.

Ando’s Church on the Water at Tomamu (1988) opens entirely to the cosmos, in which he placed a freestanding, Latin cross in steel, similar to what Kaija and Heikki Siren did in the Technical University Chapel at Otaniemi, Finland (1957). But Ando’s genius consisted in placing his cross in a water basin and sliding away the whole rear glass wall like a giant shoji screen to give more direct, intimate contact with the natural essences of water, wind, and light. Thus, the cross brings together nature and the sacred, earth and sky, exteriority and interiority, mystery and matter, body and spirit. The cross defines the emptiness as sacred, so that it makes the ineffable palpable. Due to its precise staging in a shallow pond, the cross becomes more than a mere sign representing Christianity, such as on Mount Rokko and in Tarumi. In Tomamu, the cross is enriched as expressive symbol that yearns for interpretation. The water makes the cross inaccessible, and yet so visibly near; it can theologically be understood as the eschatological cross of glory, materially expressing at once the visual “already” and the physical “not yet.” The creative genius of this architectural event resides not in the object itself but in its staging, in its spatial relationship bridging interior and exterior space.

The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote on the theological aspects of architecture, was still wary of opening “the building too widely toward surrounding nature,” even though he valued the intention of opening the church to nature as the idea “to draw nature into the sphere of the Holy Presence.”6  He feared that the opposite would happen, that worshippers would be “drawn away from concentration on the Holy Presence to the outside world.” Ando, however, did not open Tomamu “widely” towards its surroundings but consciously “frames” nature and consciously “stages” a cross in-between exterior and interior spaces. Placing the cross as visible witness of the infinite appearing within the finite, Ando allows their invisible relationship to come to the fore. Ando expands sacred space by incorporating the cosmos into the sacred. Tillich legitimately feared the distraction from the liturgical action. There is indeed a strong pull outwards in these churches, which invite a contemplative mood rather than one focused upon action. Nevertheless, liturgical action would be enriched by such a wonderful and festive backdrop.

Church of the Light

The space in the Church of the Light is revealed in the glow of the cross.
Photo: Mith Huang/flickr

Ando goes even further in his Church of the Light (1989). The entire sanctuary wall is a religious symbol: extending over the entire height and width of the concrete wall (8 by 6 meters) a Latin cross is excised. What do we look at? The wall or the cross, which is not really there? This cross is present as absence, because it is cut out of the wall. As Christian symbol it is there, that is, not less but more than there. For a Christian, this could be a magnificent symbol of death and resurrection. For Frampton, it is also a denial in favor of a cosmogonic spirituality. All of Ando’s churches are imbued with this conjunction in which both Christian iconography and its Japanese “other” are simultaneously evoked, although the evocation of the divine depends on the revealed ineffability of nature rather than on the presentation of conventional symbolism.”7  From a theological perspective, we could say that it is a denial of the representational character in favor of its expressive dimension. The cross becomes a non-object, a non-place, pure negativity, pure expression. It serves more to express, that is, to make present, than to represent. In Ibaraki, the cross is made of impalpable light, made ineffable.

Ando does more than merely providing a window onto the landscape. He carefully “stages” nature, and patiently distills natural “essence,” so that nature is served in its awe-inspiring purity. Ando does not treat nature as landscape to look at, as object at a distance, but as a dynamism because “it is the very transitory and haptic character of natural phenomena that serves to enliven and guarantee the spirituality of his architecture.”8  One could say that his work in Ibaraki is more interiorized, more intimate, than in Tomamu.

Against the current “homogenization” of light in contemporary society – and in religious buildings bluntly used as cliché for the transcendent (we might think of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland) Ando stages light against darkness. Faithful to a Japanese tradition “in praise of shadows,”9  he literally constructs darkness in order for light to reveal the ineffable:

Light, alone, does not make light. There must be darkness for light to become light – resplendent with dignity and power. Darkness, which kindles the brilliance of light and reveals light’s power, is innately a part of light. […] Here, I prepared a box with thick enclosing walls of concrete – a ‘construction of darkness.’ I then cut a slot in one wall, allowing the penetration of light – under conditions of severe constraint.10

Immediately, this centrifugal moment mirrors back on itself, and one is set within this cosmos and realizes her or his own place. This means that Ando’s edifices are never pretty objects to look at by a distant subject, but dynamic and relational events that must be experienced by a moving body. Because of their strong transcendent appeal they are domus Dei even before being domus ecclesiae. Even before being defined by their liturgical function as explicitly religious buildings, they are intrinsically religious in their contemplative mood. In this atmosphere, Ando places a cross: not as representative sign that one can decipher but as expressive symbol that one has to interpret. In a way specific to architecture, Ando stretches its original Christian meaning in order to give it a universal significance. He does so in different ways, and it has been my intention to bring to light in this article the basic itinerary of the cross in Ando’s oeuvre between representation and expression.

For Ando, there is a clear evolution in the use of the cross: from a devotional object hanging on a wall, over a material symbol at an unapproachable distance, to an abstract, dematerialized absence, condensed to its pure meaning. Important is to hold both dimensions together: such a dematerialization can in architecture only be done by solid materialization. The spiritual can only be revealed through the material, engaging the corporal. By placing the cross within the cosmos and by abstracting it to pure light, the cross becomes eschatological, that is to say, in its shape anamnesis of the historical, salvific cross (already), and in its staging prolepsis of the paradisiacal victory of the end of times (not yet).

  1. Judith Dupré, Churches (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140-141. See also Tadao Ando: Complete Works, ed. Francesco Dal Co (London: Phaidon, 1996).
  2. See Kenneth Frampton, “Corporeal Experience in the Architecture of Tadao Ando,” in Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture, eds. George Dodds and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 304-318; Christiane Johannsen, “Spiritual Experience,” in Architecture, Aesth/Ethics and Religion, ed. Sigurd Bergmann (Frankfurt am Main/London: IKO-Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, 2005), 187-198; Kenneth Frampton, “The Secular Spirituality of Tadao Ando,” in Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture, ed. Karla Cavarra Britton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 96-111; Jin Baek. “Emptiness and Empty Cross: Tadao Ando’s Church of Light,” in Divinity Creativity Complexity, ed. Michael Benedikt (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2010), 180-193; and Phyllis Richardson, “Introduction: A Legacy of Inspired Innovation,” in New Sacred Architecture (London: Laurence King, 2004), 6-15.
  3. Ando, quoted in William J. R. Curtis, “Between Architecture and Landscape,” GA Architect: Tadao Ando 1994-2000, 16 (2000): 8-18, at 11.
  4. Frampton, Secular, 99, 110.
  5. Tadao Ando, “Shintai and Space,” in Architecture and Body (New York: Rizzoli International, 1988), unpaginated. Similarities can be found with the understanding of flesh in French phenomenology.
  6. Paul Tillich, “Contemporary Protestant Architecture,” in OAA, 218.
  7. Frampton, Secular, 99.
  8. Frampton, Secular, 98.
  9. See the exquisite essay by the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (London: Vintage Books, 2001 (1977)).
  10. Tadao Ando, “Church of Light,” in Tadao Ando: Complete Works, ed. Francesco Dal Co (London: Phaidon, 1995), 471.


The author is Professor of Systematic Theology at Universidad Pontifica Comillas in Madrid, Spain.