My brief was to reconstruct this 250 year old pure land temple of the Edo period in the city of Saijo, the gateway to Mount Ishizuchi, known for its mild climate and abundant natural springs. The temple was in such disrepair it had to be rebuilt, along with the adjoining guest hall and priests’ quarters. Although restoration was a monumental undertaking, destined to be passed down to future generations, the temple’s chief priest had no specific requirements regarding the architecture. He simply noted that the temple “should be a place where people can come together; a temple open to the community”.
As a “place where people can come together”, our new temple appears to float on the water like a mirage, shrouded in gentle light. The main building, guest hall, chapel, priests’ quarters and other ancillary structures “hover” over a spring-fed pond, echoing the two essential features of the local landscape: water and wood. Accordingly, the main theme is exploring space with wood. Although there was no requirement to copy the existing temple architectural style, I wanted to respect what had been built up over time.
In my view, the essence of traditional Japanese wooden architecture is “assembly”. Buildings comprise numerous wooden parts, taking shape as these are fitted together. An example of how this method was refined into an exquisite, powerful building system is the Nandaimon, the great south gate of the Todai-ji temple, and the Jodo-do of Jodo-ji Temple designed by the medieval monk, Chogen. I wanted to create a space that would return to the origins of wooden architecture: a single structure comprising many parts, each full of tension. The framework of the main building also had to express the idea of people gathering and joining hands, supporting each other in a single community.
After considering various alternatives, the scheme devised for the main building was a large space with three layers of interlocking beams supported by 16 columns in groups of 4. The double enclosure comprises an inner frosted-glass screen separated by a corridor from a latticed exterior wall made of 15 x 21 cm posts set 15 cm apart with glass panel inserts. The overall effect is a weak demarcation between interior and exterior. Daylight filters through the latticed exterior to provide soft, natural illumination to the interior. This is a bright, open, ceremonial space about 100 mats (mat: 180 x 90 cm) in size. Events taking place inside are visible, albeit indistinctly, from outside. At night, the main building takes on a mystical appearance as light spills out to be reflected in the darkness by the waters of the spring-fed pond. Apart from its wooden structure and gently sloping eave-bordered roof, the building has little in common with traditional Japanese wooden architecture. The simple, rational and highly contemporary building technique using laminated timber nonetheless harks back to age-old “assembly-type” Japanese construction traditions. Laminated timber is an extremely effective material. It provides uniformity and especially ensures zero wastage. Made of multiple layers of small pieces of wood, it was especially appropriate to the design in hand. Every attempt was made to leave the stone walls and trees around the site undisturbed. Although given permission to demolish the main gate and bell tower, we left them intact even if preservation curtails design freedom, frequently causing further problems. Here, the decision to leave the bell tower near the entrance meant abandoning the pure geometry of the original plan with an approach along the pond and opting for a path skirting the bell tower. On completion of the project, however, these unscheduled changes fitted surprisingly well into the whole, giving depth to the architectural space and indeed becoming focal elements.
Rather than rigidly adhering to the plan from beginning to end, this project was an opportunity to become gradually aware of the memories the place held. I had many conversations with the site while assembling the architecture. 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 this is a place where a variety of elements come together and speak to the visitor.