This project designed by Tadao Ando, dealt with the reconstruction of a temple of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. Situated on the eastern side of the city of Saijo, in Ehime Prefecture, the site dates back to the Edo period.
A small city favoured by an extraordinarily mild climate, Saijo is well known as a place from which to approach Mount Ishizuchi. The zone is rich in natural springs and the city is crossed by a network of canals carrying mountain streams.
The main temple, built over 250 years ago, was no longer sound and needed major repairs and reconstruction. An adjacent plot was also to be built up for guests and rooms for the monks. The abbot of the temple did not stipulate conditions with regard to the new structure. He simply explained his ideas in general terms, expressing a desire to construct "a temple in which people can meet, that is open to the community.
Architects conceived the new temple as a wooden building, cloaked in delicate light and appearing to float on an expanse of water fed by a spring. Such a design emphasises the importance of water as a feature of the landscape and, above all, the choice of wood as a material of construction.
The design goal was to explore all of the possibilities that wood offered. The existing architectural style of the temple was not a constraint, the final result became an incorporation of building styles from over the centuries.
Ando said that as he had noticed it, traditional Japanese wooden architecture was essentially one of assembly. Building involved cutting all the pieces of wood and, bit by bit, the construction took form as the various parts came together. Such a technique had been perfected to achieve works of power and beauty such as the Nandaimon temple Todai-ji and the Jodo-ji Temple by Chogen, a medieval monk. Ando wanted to create a space that represented a return to the origins of wooden architecture, a unique structure composed of diverse parts, each one rich in tension.
After considering a number of alternatives, the main building was planned as a large space covered by three layers of cross beams supported by 16 columns and divided into four groups. The main area was enclosed by a frosted glass screen next to a corridor that was in turn surrounded by an external wall of softwood joists.
The corridor is formed by poles of 15 by 21 centimeters, with inserts of glass between them that create an intermediate line of separation between the inside and the outside. Natural light filters through into the main area, the floor of which is covered by a hundred straw mats to create an open, luminous space with an air of solemnity.
From the outside it is possible to perceive vaguely what takes place inside. At night the main building, with light coming from its interior, creates a mystical reflection on the surface of the water. Excluding the fact that the roof turns up at the corners, the work does not have much in common with traditional Japanese wooden architecture. It consists entirely of laminated wood, a choice that came from the research into a structural method that, to keep in step with the spirit of traditional "assembly", resulted in a simple, logical style that also reflected contemporary building technology.
Laminated wood is an extremely versatile material from which a high degree of uniformity can be obtained with very little waste. Since the material consists of layers made up of much smaller parts this seemed particularly appropriate.
Tadao and associates looked for ways to leave the walls of stone intact and to keep the existing trees on the site, but although permission was obtained to demolish the entrance and the bell tower, they decided to leave in their original position. It was a choice intended to retain the original geometric form of the approach to the entrance.
In the end, it was decided to abandon the pure symmetry and to create a walkway that wound around the pavilion. In the final version, architects accepted that unforeseen elements should be integrated into the perfection of the context. They gave depth to the architectural space and performed an important function.
Rather than following a uniform logic from the beginning to the end, thanks to this project Ando was glad to have the opportunity to acquire something intangible and mystical:
"I was able to return a memory to the place and enter into a dialogue with the site while defining the architecture. Building Komyo-ji Temple allowed me to rediscover and gain a new awareness of the origins of my architectural methods."