Two churches by Hishoa Kohyama

An Approach to Contemporary Japanese Religious Architecture

Possibly Church design is the toughest challenge any architect can face. Even the emblematic professor of the French Academy, Emile Gaudet, who redacted rules and formulas for all aspects of architectural creation in his architectural treaty "Éléments et théorie de l'Architecture" (1.902), recognized the impossibility of finding any valid universal formula for the project of church buildings.

The burden of a two millennium old tradition, the complexity of the symbolic and iconologic contents of the building itself, its functional and technological peculiarities, its exceptional character as churches are infrequently built, and its necessary sense of permanence, makes the project of a church a design problem difficult to be successfully overcome.

The buildings of St. Andrew's Church in Tokyo and St. Rita's Church in Tobetsu, however, are an example of how Kohyama's architectural philosophy allows him to produce exemplary church buildings. Every project is refined to contain just what is necessary. Not formal overloading or overdetaling; neither radical minimalism. He carefully researches each building he projects and constructs, trying to get to its essence, its architectural "truth".

Kohyama sometimes refers to his design theory as "Generative Morphology". This term just claims that creating architecture, in definitive generating its form, is the result of a complex process. Design is beyond a simple formal exercise of composition, and begins with a thorough analysis of all the complexity of the architectural problem. This analysis is not a previous step, but the design process itself, as it will progressively help to define the resulting form of the building.

Kohyama's brilliant criticism of his own works, is a clear example of how the process of design is as unique and different, as it is each particular architectural commission. Beyond simplistic one-way interpretations of architecture, all the physical and intellectual attributes of architecture are taken into consideration: mass and space, material and texture, form and composition, image and collective memory, light as material, the life and use of the building itself, the place and its environment, the constructive process, the detailing and furniture... Each are carefully studied, and given the right treatment and importance depending on the need of each building.

To get the context of Kohyama´s church architecture, not only his architectural thought, but his background is also important. Three circumstances of his vast architectural culture are noteworthy:

First, his long stay at Kyushu let him breathe the spirit of Xavier, and the presence of the old communities of "Kakure-Kirishitan". The Island of Kyushu presents the oldest Christian cultural tradition in Japan. Its old churches have a special magic flavor that is dearly appreciated by all Japanese, and is an important element of their collective memory.

Second, his stay in the States, especially the city of Boston, transmitted him Richardson's enthusiasm towards Medieval Europe. The image of the Spike of Salamanca's Old Cathedral, model for Richardson´s masterpiece Trinity's Church, is a favorite in his lectures at University. This love towards Medieval Architecture has moved Kohyama to often travel to the Origins of Gothic and Romanesque, especially France and England, where he has also lived.

Third, he promotes and directs graduate research works on church architecture, as for example one on the largest and more important church architectural tradition of Asia, the Philippines. Kohyama himself has spent some time travelling and quietly sketching its buildings, without the usual rush of field trips, grasping deep beyond formal appearance into the essence of the buildings.

As far as I know, the first approach of Kohyama's Atelier to church design is the unpublished competition entry for the Church of St. Ignatius in Tokyo, in 1.991. After careful meditation, Kohyama choose to develop a bold design based on the church typology of centralized plan, breaking the heavy typological tradition of 19th century longitudinal basilica-plan neo-Gothic churches, built in Japan since the Meiji Opening. The reason of this election, apart from its strong symbolic meaning, was the challenge of achieving a deeper sense of community and unity of the believers, by surrounding and enclosing the space of the altar, avoiding the coldness and distance existing in the basilica-type plan (especially in large buildings), in which the attendants become mere spectators of the ceremonies.
This supposed a radical change from the old existing building; however, a great care was taken on preserving the personality of the existing building and its surroundings. The project kept the original building sense of scale, even after enlarging greatly its capacity. The old bell tower (a traditional landmark clearly visible from nearby Yotsuya Station) and some elements of the old facade were kept within the new design, as they represented a continuity and a recognizable permanence within the city's memory.

The result of this difficult contradiction (a radical change on typology and size, but a continuity in image and presence in the city) was a project that if built, as many of Kohyama's other architectural achievements, could have become a model, basis for the development of new designs. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The seed of Ignatius Project, however, can be found on the two churches Kohyama has recently built. The typological research, the care for the preservation of the character of the place, and the continuity with the collective memory of pre-existing buildings, is a constant reference in their design. They are apparently similar, but their peculiar circumstances, define their final shape, with a different personality and meaning.
St. Andrew's Church is an extension of an old building, (a field were Kohyama has a long experience). St. Rita´s Church is an urgent reconstruction of a lost landmark, although not a copy of the original building. St. Andrew's stands in the busy urban landscape of Tokyo, while St. Rita´s becomes part of Hokkaido´s extensive rural Landscape. Finally, in Tokyo's Urban landscape, Church buildings, even old ones, are exotic newcomers. Hokkaido is a land of pioneers and recently created small cities, were church buildings are familiar elements, often built simultaneously with the new towns, in some cases becoming their main landmarks.

On the typological aspect, both designs face the contradiction of the symbolic interest of centralized spaces, and the ceremonial convenience of the longitudinal plan. Each project approaches this problem in an opposite way. St. Andrew's Church, creates a centralized space within a linear, long-basilica plan. St. Rita's Church, on the other hand, creates longitudinal depth and linearity within a centralized plan.

In the Church of St. Andrews, the original basilica plan is extended laterally, creating two lateral bays, and thus resting some force to the longitudinal axis. The main element for achieving the central directionality is the masterful use of light. Although the two rows of columns clearly stress linear depth, the ceiling breaks that linear rigidity, becoming geometrically discomposed and literally "dissolved" into the light falling through the roof openings. The central space created in this way is empty. Even the floating cross is slightly kept away from the center. When looking at the floor plan, it becomes clear that both the altar and the believers´ seats are disposed around this center, respecting the void. The tension created in this way gives this central focus an expressive strength difficult to express with words. The spacial treatment is hold by the great central space, defined by the descending light (a beautiful interpretation of a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit), and the floating cross. The longitudinal, long basilica plan, allows for a great seating capacity, but the altar gets surrounded by the believers´ seats, accomplishing one of the main objectives already commented in the Ignatius Project.

The perfect expressive balance in the interior space is kept by reducing the decoration to the essential, and controlling personally all design by the architect: the beautiful floating crucifix, the baptismal chapel with its simple stone pile, placed at a differentiated lateral space close to the entrance (a disposition traditional of Christian symbology), the also simple but clearly differentiated sacramental chapel on one side of the transept, the main altar platform built of stone (another symbolic tradition), and the necessary presence of the stained glass windows.

The external treatment of the building presents two operations worth to be remarked.

First, the new massive facade is juxtaposed in front of the old building (a resource already successfully used by Kohyama in his extension of the Faculty of Economics of the University of Tokyo). A contemporary re-interpretation of Alberti's classical church facades, the great pediment with its oversized round window and decorative cross, preserves the image of the old church, while the great entrance arch presents an inviting aspect, proper of the welcoming nature of the building itself. The addition of this facade creates an intermediate space, housing the bell, and defining a porch, necessary to achieve a smooth transition between the exterior and the inner sacred space.

Second, there is a clear definition of the external atrium space in front of the church. This is a traditional and important church element, with a double functionality: the provision of a space for gathering after the ceremonies, and the creation of an intermediate urban space, both inviting to the outsider, and smoothing the transition from the busy city to the intimateness of the church itself. An small annex houses other basic activities of the community, and allows for a softer articulation of the church building with the surrounding city.

Comparing the external view from the street with the old pictures of the place, it is possible to appreciate how the familiarity with the image and proportions of the old building has been preserved, even after greatly enlarging its capacity. The new building also gets a stronger presence in the city, and becomes more inviting, two important functions of any church building.

As it is usual in Kohyama´s designs, Japanese architectural tradition has its presence in a very natural way. The massiveness of the entrance porch, as well as some details of elements and proportions of the the inner space, remind the famous and carefully preserved "Detsu-tenshudo" in Nagasaki. The new copper roof gets a great treatment in the perceptive image of the building, in a genuinely Japanese way. The subtle convexity of the roof over the porch lateral entrances is a double reference to both traditional Japanese Shinto entrances, and Richardson´s roofing details.

St. Rita's Church formal schema starts from the vertical transformation of a cube, into an octagonal prism, basis of an octagonal dome. It reminds the beautiful constructive details of Late Romanesque domes and spires. An addition at the entrance to create a deep Narthex, and a smaller protrusion at the opposite side for the Altar, break the abstraction of the central body and creates a clear axis easily perceivable even from outside the building.

In the interior, the use of light is basic for the spatial experience. From the entrance, a sequence of spaces presenting alternatively different intensities of shade and light, can be perceived. The impression is that of a great depth, within a relatively small space, starting in the penumbra of the Narthex, and ending in the mysterious and immaterial light of the altar. Tension is created by two groups of large lateral windows, that stresses the centrality by marking the transversal axis. As it happens in Velazquez's painting "Las Meninas", masterful use of light an shade creates an atmosphere of depth and mystery within what, in other case, would be nothing but a prosaic empty space.

There is another wise compositional resource at St. Rita's. The facade of the altar repeats the external front facade, becoming a beautiful metaphor of the progressive gates to Heaven. The inner space of the church becomes attractively ambiguous, as it is physically the interior of the building, but symbolically the exterior of Heaven.

Traditional Christian Symbology is coherently used in the building. The square shape of the base means the terrestrial world, while the octagonal dome is a traditional expression of Heaven. The octagonal basis of the dome repeats alternatively groups of round and square windows, except at the altar side, where the cross stands. A total of eight square windows repeats the building's basic compositional an symbolic game of "four" and "eight". The round windows, totalling twelve, have traditionally a double cosmic and religious meaning: the twelve months or the hours of the day, and the twelve apostles (whose stained glass images stand in each window). Twelve is also the final count of arches of the two groups of three doubled arched windows of the laterals.

The window disposition of the building, apart from its symbolic meaning, expresses the space-temporal nature of the Christian ceremonies, especially through the treatment of light, different according to the hours of the day or the seasons of the year.
In the exteriors, St. Rita's facade is similar in composition to that of St. Andrew´s. Its is also independent from the building. The proportions are much gentler, since the rural ambience of Tobetsu does not need the monumentality and formality of Urban Tokyo. It is the bulk of the building, not the facade as it happened in St. Andrew´s, which defines its external image, with a slight Byzantine look. The external use of brick, long a symbol of westernization in Japan, gives the building a more informal and domestic look than the stone of St. Andrew's. The external atrium space is also clearly defined, creating an harmonic connection with the surrounding landscape.

Both buildings are the mature work of a master. It is the building, together with the life and human activity they house, where the true beauty, the success of his works resides. But it is Kohyama's own words which better describe their real value: "The joy of the Church's people, is our joy".


Santiago Porras Alvarez

Born Madrid 1.961
Architect by Madrid Polytechnic University 1.985
Mombusho scholar at The Graduate School of Architecture, Prof. Maki´s lab.,The University of Tokyo, 1.987.
Doctor of Engineering in Architecture, under Prof. Kohyama´s supervision, University of Tokyo, 1.992
Currently, private architectural practice in Madrid. Lectures and essays on Japanese and East Asian Architecture.

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Two churches by Hishoa Kohyama

An Approach to Contemporary Japanese Religious Architecture

Possibly Church design is the toughest challenge any architect can face. Even the emblematic professor of the French Academy, Emile Gaudet, who redacted rules and formulas for all aspects of architectural creation in his architectural treaty "Éléments et théorie de l'Architecture" (1.902), recognized the impossibility of finding any valid universal formula for the project of church buildings.

The burden of a two millennium old tradition, the complexity of the symbolic and iconologic contents of the building itself, its functional and technological peculiarities, its exceptional character as churches are infrequently built, and its necessary sense of permanence, makes the project of a church a design problem difficult to be successfully overcome.

The buildings of St. Andrew's Church in Tokyo and St. Rita's Church in Tobetsu, however, are an example of how Kohyama's architectural philosophy allows him to produce exemplary church buildings. Every project is refined to contain just what is necessary. Not formal overloading or overdetaling; neither radical minimalism. He carefully researches each building he projects and constructs, trying to get to its essence, its architectural "truth".

Kohyama sometimes refers to his design theory as "Generative Morphology". This term just claims that creating architecture, in definitive generating its form, is the result of a complex process. Design is beyond a simple formal exercise of composition, and begins with a thorough analysis of all the complexity of the architectural problem. This analysis is not a previous step, but the design process itself, as it will progressively help to define the resulting form of the building.

Kohyama's brilliant criticism of his own works, is a clear example of how the process of design is as unique and different, as it is each particular architectural commission. Beyond simplistic one-way interpretations of architecture, all the physical and intellectual attributes of architecture are taken into consideration: mass and space, material and texture, form and composition, image and collective memory, light as material, the life and use of the building itself, the place and its environment, the constructive process, the detailing and furniture... Each are carefully studied, and given the right treatment and importance depending on the need of each building.

To get the context of Kohyama´s church architecture, not only his architectural thought, but his background is also important. Three circumstances of his vast architectural culture are noteworthy:

First, his long stay at Kyushu let him breathe the spirit of Xavier, and the presence of the old communities of "Kakure-Kirishitan". The Island of Kyushu presents the oldest Christian cultural tradition in Japan. Its old churches have a special magic flavor that is dearly appreciated by all Japanese, and is an important element of their collective memory.

Second, his stay in the States, especially the city of Boston, transmitted him Richardson's enthusiasm towards Medieval Europe. The image of the Spike of Salamanca's Old Cathedral, model for Richardson´s masterpiece Trinity's Church, is a favorite in his lectures at University. This love towards Medieval Architecture has moved Kohyama to often travel to the Origins of Gothic and Romanesque, especially France and England, where he has also lived.

Third, he promotes and directs graduate research works on church architecture, as for example one on the largest and more important church architectural tradition of Asia, the Philippines. Kohyama himself has spent some time travelling and quietly sketching its buildings, without the usual rush of field trips, grasping deep beyond formal appearance into the essence of the buildings.

As far as I know, the first approach of Kohyama's Atelier to church design is the unpublished competition entry for the Church of St. Ignatius in Tokyo, in 1.991. After careful meditation, Kohyama choose to develop a bold design based on the church typology of centralized plan, breaking the heavy typological tradition of 19th century longitudinal basilica-plan neo-Gothic churches, built in Japan since the Meiji Opening. The reason of this election, apart from its strong symbolic meaning, was the challenge of achieving a deeper sense of community and unity of the believers, by surrounding and enclosing the space of the altar, avoiding the coldness and distance existing in the basilica-type plan (especially in large buildings), in which the attendants become mere spectators of the ceremonies.
This supposed a radical change from the old existing building; however, a great care was taken on preserving the personality of the existing building and its surroundings. The project kept the original building sense of scale, even after enlarging greatly its capacity. The old bell tower (a traditional landmark clearly visible from nearby Yotsuya Station) and some elements of the old facade were kept within the new design, as they represented a continuity and a recognizable permanence within the city's memory.

The result of this difficult contradiction (a radical change on typology and size, but a continuity in image and presence in the city) was a project that if built, as many of Kohyama's other architectural achievements, could have become a model, basis for the development of new designs. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The seed of Ignatius Project, however, can be found on the two churches Kohyama has recently built. The typological research, the care for the preservation of the character of the place, and the continuity with the collective memory of pre-existing buildings, is a constant reference in their design. They are apparently similar, but their peculiar circumstances, define their final shape, with a different personality and meaning.
St. Andrew's Church is an extension of an old building, (a field were Kohyama has a long experience). St. Rita´s Church is an urgent reconstruction of a lost landmark, although not a copy of the original building. St. Andrew's stands in the busy urban landscape of Tokyo, while St. Rita´s becomes part of Hokkaido´s extensive rural Landscape. Finally, in Tokyo's Urban landscape, Church buildings, even old ones, are exotic newcomers. Hokkaido is a land of pioneers and recently created small cities, were church buildings are familiar elements, often built simultaneously with the new towns, in some cases becoming their main landmarks.

On the typological aspect, both designs face the contradiction of the symbolic interest of centralized spaces, and the ceremonial convenience of the longitudinal plan. Each project approaches this problem in an opposite way. St. Andrew's Church, creates a centralized space within a linear, long-basilica plan. St. Rita's Church, on the other hand, creates longitudinal depth and linearity within a centralized plan.

In the Church of St. Andrews, the original basilica plan is extended laterally, creating two lateral bays, and thus resting some force to the longitudinal axis. The main element for achieving the central directionality is the masterful use of light. Although the two rows of columns clearly stress linear depth, the ceiling breaks that linear rigidity, becoming geometrically discomposed and literally "dissolved" into the light falling through the roof openings. The central space created in this way is empty. Even the floating cross is slightly kept away from the center. When looking at the floor plan, it becomes clear that both the altar and the believers´ seats are disposed around this center, respecting the void. The tension created in this way gives this central focus an expressive strength difficult to express with words. The spacial treatment is hold by the great central space, defined by the descending light (a beautiful interpretation of a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit), and the floating cross. The longitudinal, long basilica plan, allows for a great seating capacity, but the altar gets surrounded by the believers´ seats, accomplishing one of the main objectives already commented in the Ignatius Project.

The perfect expressive balance in the interior space is kept by reducing the decoration to the essential, and controlling personally all design by the architect: the beautiful floating crucifix, the baptismal chapel with its simple stone pile, placed at a differentiated lateral space close to the entrance (a disposition traditional of Christian symbology), the also simple but clearly differentiated sacramental chapel on one side of the transept, the main altar platform built of stone (another symbolic tradition), and the necessary presence of the stained glass windows.

The external treatment of the building presents two operations worth to be remarked.

First, the new massive facade is juxtaposed in front of the old building (a resource already successfully used by Kohyama in his extension of the Faculty of Economics of the University of Tokyo). A contemporary re-interpretation of Alberti's classical church facades, the great pediment with its oversized round window and decorative cross, preserves the image of the old church, while the great entrance arch presents an inviting aspect, proper of the welcoming nature of the building itself. The addition of this facade creates an intermediate space, housing the bell, and defining a porch, necessary to achieve a smooth transition between the exterior and the inner sacred space.

Second, there is a clear definition of the external atrium space in front of the church. This is a traditional and important church element, with a double functionality: the provision of a space for gathering after the ceremonies, and the creation of an intermediate urban space, both inviting to the outsider, and smoothing the transition from the busy city to the intimateness of the church itself. An small annex houses other basic activities of the community, and allows for a softer articulation of the church building with the surrounding city.

Comparing the external view from the street with the old pictures of the place, it is possible to appreciate how the familiarity with the image and proportions of the old building has been preserved, even after greatly enlarging its capacity. The new building also gets a stronger presence in the city, and becomes more inviting, two important functions of any church building.

As it is usual in Kohyama´s designs, Japanese architectural tradition has its presence in a very natural way. The massiveness of the entrance porch, as well as some details of elements and proportions of the the inner space, remind the famous and carefully preserved "Detsu-tenshudo" in Nagasaki. The new copper roof gets a great treatment in the perceptive image of the building, in a genuinely Japanese way. The subtle convexity of the roof over the porch lateral entrances is a double reference to both traditional Japanese Shinto entrances, and Richardson´s roofing details.

St. Rita's Church formal schema starts from the vertical transformation of a cube, into an octagonal prism, basis of an octagonal dome. It reminds the beautiful constructive details of Late Romanesque domes and spires. An addition at the entrance to create a deep Narthex, and a smaller protrusion at the opposite side for the Altar, break the abstraction of the central body and creates a clear axis easily perceivable even from outside the building.

In the interior, the use of light is basic for the spatial experience. From the entrance, a sequence of spaces presenting alternatively different intensities of shade and light, can be perceived. The impression is that of a great depth, within a relatively small space, starting in the penumbra of the Narthex, and ending in the mysterious and immaterial light of the altar. Tension is created by two groups of large lateral windows, that stresses the centrality by marking the transversal axis. As it happens in Velazquez's painting "Las Meninas", masterful use of light an shade creates an atmosphere of depth and mystery within what, in other case, would be nothing but a prosaic empty space.

There is another wise compositional resource at St. Rita's. The facade of the altar repeats the external front facade, becoming a beautiful metaphor of the progressive gates to Heaven. The inner space of the church becomes attractively ambiguous, as it is physically the interior of the building, but symbolically the exterior of Heaven.

Traditional Christian Symbology is coherently used in the building. The square shape of the base means the terrestrial world, while the octagonal dome is a traditional expression of Heaven. The octagonal basis of the dome repeats alternatively groups of round and square windows, except at the altar side, where the cross stands. A total of eight square windows repeats the building's basic compositional an symbolic game of "four" and "eight". The round windows, totalling twelve, have traditionally a double cosmic and religious meaning: the twelve months or the hours of the day, and the twelve apostles (whose stained glass images stand in each window). Twelve is also the final count of arches of the two groups of three doubled arched windows of the laterals.

The window disposition of the building, apart from its symbolic meaning, expresses the space-temporal nature of the Christian ceremonies, especially through the treatment of light, different according to the hours of the day or the seasons of the year.
In the exteriors, St. Rita's facade is similar in composition to that of St. Andrew´s. Its is also independent from the building. The proportions are much gentler, since the rural ambience of Tobetsu does not need the monumentality and formality of Urban Tokyo. It is the bulk of the building, not the facade as it happened in St. Andrew´s, which defines its external image, with a slight Byzantine look. The external use of brick, long a symbol of westernization in Japan, gives the building a more informal and domestic look than the stone of St. Andrew's. The external atrium space is also clearly defined, creating an harmonic connection with the surrounding landscape.

Both buildings are the mature work of a master. It is the building, together with the life and human activity they house, where the true beauty, the success of his works resides. But it is Kohyama's own words which better describe their real value: "The joy of the Church's people, is our joy".


Santiago Porras Alvarez

Born Madrid 1.961
Architect by Madrid Polytechnic University 1.985
Mombusho scholar at The Graduate School of Architecture, Prof. Maki´s lab.,The University of Tokyo, 1.987.
Doctor of Engineering in Architecture, under Prof. Kohyama´s supervision, University of Tokyo, 1.992
Currently, private architectural practice in Madrid. Lectures and essays on Japanese and East Asian Architecture.