Balancing enclosure and exposure, this Presbyterian church by Taira Nishizawa is both awe-inspiring and intimate.
An elderly congregation housed in an aged building, the Sunpu Church was in need of revitalization. Having been through many incarnations since it was founded in the 1890s, the Presbyterian congregation occupied a rental property in a quiet neighborhood in Shizuoka, a city of 700,000, 112 miles west of Tokyo. Hoping that a centrally placed building on church-owned land would not only save money but also attract new members, the group interviewed several designers and appointed the Tokyo architect Taira Nishizawa to the job.
Nishizawa’s first task was to find a suitable site. Located at the intersection of a narrow, residential road and a broad thoroughfare lined with low-scale offices, shops, and apartment buildings, the prominent corner plot he recommended was a definite improvement over the church’s current home. The only catch was the commuter train line running down the middle of the commercial strip. While the church might benefit from the increased visibility among the young workers and students who ride the rails daily, the noise generated by the train cars whipping past every few minutes posed obvious problems.
But this condition did not stop the client from closing the deal or the architect from moving ahead to the project’s programming phase. In addition to the chapel with seating for the entire congregation (the Sunpu Church has roughly 100 members but only 40 weekly worshipers), the client requested an adjacent, soundproof room where parents and small children could participate in services without disturbing them. The congregation also needed a kitchen, meeting room, and other support areas, plus a study and a three-bedroom apartment for the minister.
To distinguish the chapel from the rest of the church, Nishizawa divided the project into two distinct but connected volumes. Inspired by the scale and geometry of the commercial buildings, a cube contains the sanctuary. Echoing the neighboring houses, a pitched roof block holds the minister’s apartment above and parking plus the other programmatic pieces below. While the residence has a separate door on the building’s back side, the church welcomes worshipers with a diagonal entrance at the intersection of the two streets. From there, a low, shadowy vestibule leads to the chapel: a 33-foot-square, light-filled space with a soaring, 30-foot-high ceiling.
Nishizawa achieved this dramatic result entirely with timber. “Wood is an organic material that allows you to control the transition between inside and out,” explains the architect. Practicing what he preaches, the architect encased the sanctuary in a 30-inch-thick windowless wall whose multiple layers of insulation, soundproofing, and structure delicately modulate the flow of sound, both external and internal, and light from above. “I wanted to realize a space where people could read or listen to the Bible unimpeded by artificial light or microphones,” says Nishizawa.
In contrast to the rough-hewn, vertical strips of unfinished red cedar cladding the whole building, horizontal, planed, pine louvers line the chapel’s inner face. As the wall ascends, these lateral bands become progressively thinner, the interstitial gaps wider, and the entire surface dematerializes, revealing the trusslike columns illuminated from above. The gradation from solid to void culminates at the ceiling, where evenly spaced, 0.63-inch-wide, diagonal wood bars mask 4-foot-deep roof trusses but admit muted light from seven skylights on top.
Integral to the architecture, the ever-changing play of light and shadow enlivens the sanctuary and takes the place of applied adornment or religious imagery. “Protestants concentrate on the Bible, not on icons,” explains the architect, who rendered the altar and baptismal basin as plain, wooden boxes. And function drove the clean design of the chairs — they had to be compact and stackable but include a sliding shelf for prayer books. The only suggestion of iconography is the delicate, stainless-steel cross crowning the grapevine-patterned gate at the building’s entrance.
Located at a typical street crossing in a regional city in the heart of Japan, the Sunpu Church embodies spirituality in a place where one might not expect it. Though the clanging trains and other sounds of the city are never completely out of earshot, daylight is a constant presence that forges a symbolic bond between heaven and earth — the essence of ecclesiastical space. Both intimate and awe-inspiring, Nishizawa’s building is a remarkable balance of modesty and monumentality.
Taira Nishizawa Architects
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architect of Record
Taira Nishizawa Architects
Structure: Kanebako Structure Engineering
Machine: Kankyou Engineering
Lighting: Bonnori Lighting Design
Acoustical: Karasawa Acoustic Design
Ornament Design(Entrance Gate): Maki Kaneko
Furniture Design: Taira Nishizawa Architects
Ventilation: Strip Ceder 15×45mm @455mm
Fireproof+Sound Absorbent: Galvanized and Aluminum Coated Steel Sheet T=0.27mm
Waterproofing: Tyvek Sheet
Heat Insulator: Polystyrene Form T=50mm
Structure: Structural Plywood 12mm
Sound Absorbent: Acoustical Control Rubber T=3mm
Sound Absorbent: Plaster Board T=12.5mm
Roof Board: Fire Proofing Panel T=10mm
Heat Insulation: Polystyrene Form T=50mm
Structure: Structural Plywood T=24mm
Batten: Aluminum Plate T=2mm
Plaster Board T=12.5Mm Fabric Finish
Sound Absorbent:Glass Wool(32kg)T=100Mm