Forest motif filters the light

ARTICLE Japanese architect Takaharu Tezuka spent six months drawing the 56 metre long ornamented panel that envelops Niijima Gakuen Junior College Hall & Chapel. The result is an imaginary forest walk where trees’ leaves and branches work their magic on the light in the space.

A cobalt blue T-shirt has become something of a signature for Japanese architect Takaharu Tezuka, and true to form he is wearing blue when we meet via a video link. It is 8:30 pm in Japan and Takaharu’s wife Yui, also a partner and co-founder of Tezuka Architects, occasionally pops up in the background, dressed in red. The two children, who havebeen allocated the colours yellow and green, are not present.

Tezuka Architects was founded in 1994 with a mission to make the world a better place through architecture. The Tezuka couple believe architecture encompasses so much more than physical objects on a large or small scale. With architecture comes the power to change people’s lives and communities.

One of the firm’s latest projects is a chapel at Niijima Gakuen Junior College in Takasaki that has been given multiple functions. In addition to religious services, it also has to serve as a concert venue and assembly hall for the students at the school. The chapel was completed in March 2020, and was named Building of the Year 2022 by ArchDaily in the religious architecture category.

Takasaki is the largest city in the Gunma region, around an hour from Tokyo by Shinkansen high-speed train. The city has so far maintained a low profile and is perhaps best known for silk weaving. With Niijima Gakuen Junior College Hall & Chapel, however, it is likely to attract more attention, particularly from architects.

»There were six practices competing to design a masterplan for the school’s campus. Over the course of the exercise, we were able to reformulate the assignment to also include a multifunctional chapel building, in close collaboration with the management,« explains Takaharu Tezuka.

To understand the story behind Niijima Gakuen Junior College Hall & Chapel, you need to first understand the story of Joseph Hardy Niijima. He was a Japanese school reformer who was active in the mid-19th century. Despite a ban on young Japanese people travelling abroad at the time, Niijima headed to the U.S. as a young samurai, where he converted to Christianity. On returning to Japan, he dedicated the rest of
his life to offering Christian education to the young people of Japan. In 1874, Niijima founded the Christian Doshisha University in Kyoto, from which Niijima Gakuen Junior College is an offshoot.

»The interesting thing about Japanese religion is that there is no separate existence. God is everywhere, including in you and every child you meet on the street. We often say there are 8 million gods in Japan. When Christianity came to Japan, we welcomed Jesus and gave him a place among all our gods. Here in Japan, you can build a mosque, a church or synagogue next to a Shinto temple. We can marry in a Catholic church and be buried in a Buddhist temple. We simply pick out the bits we want. It’s perfectly normal.«

Takaharu Tezuka explains that the inspiration for the new building comes from an imaginary forest that has grown up from the seeds of ideas sown by Joseph Hardy Niijima. Obviously it had to be a wooden building, and not just because of the connection with the forest. Wood is Takaharu Tezuka’s preferred material.

»There’s a continuity in wood that I love. It’s a living material that works in everything from the main structure to the small details. Of course, there are great architects who’ve achieved fantastic things in concrete, but I wouldn’t sleep well among concrete. Wood is the link between artificial existence and living tissue.«

Takaharu Tezuka is obsessed with the timelessness and continuity of architecture. He feels that, whatever the changing times and trends, there are elements of architecture that remain constant.

»Roofs, walls, floors and columns are the very essence of a building, features that we humans have learned over a long period to take for granted. Nor does the relationship between people and architecture change much, as demonstrated by our eternal desire to be able to open a window onto the landscape outside.«

Architect Takaharu Tezuka

Niijima Gakuen Junior College Hall & Chapel is shaped like a simple, rectangular box on two levels, with a load-bearing wooden frame arranged as a Vierendeel structure. This is a kind of grid system that, instead of being divided into triangles with stabilising diagonals, comprises rectangles stabilised through the moment-resisting joints between the verticals and the horizontals. The benefit of this kind of construction is that much of the outer carcass is left free to be used for windows and door openings, without being blocked by the diagonal braces in the traditional lattice systems.

The structure is made of prefabricated pine glulam beams that were shipped from Oregon on the west coast of America. The factory in Japan then used a 3D model to precision-cut the frame’s parts, ready to be quickly and easily assembled on the construction site. The structure is the same from floor to ceiling, and sits on steel plinths driven and anchored inthe ground.

The entrance level comprises three rooms that can be used for gatherings that need not be of a religious nature. For example, the students can get together, have lessons or carry out leisure activities. Two staircases running along the ends of the building lead to the chapel itself, shaped like a long nave, the most common format for Christian churches.

»Light is the crucial factor in a Christian church. So there’s a challenge in understanding it, showcasing it and making it part of the space. It sits in stark contrast to Japanese temples, which tend to be very dark.«

Architect Takaharu Tezuka

It took Takaharu Tezuka six months to complete the sketches behind the refined, 56 metre long ornamented panel that is mounted inside the building’s fully glazed façade. The sketches are made up of myriad hexagonal points that were transferred to around 80 wooden panels and then cut out with a laser cutter. When daylight filters through the holes, it softly diffracts and diffuses on the inside, creating a sense of dappled sunlight through a forest canopy. The beams of light fill the whole room, blurring reality and attracting visitors into a kind of kaleidoscope of infinite depth. The imaginary forest is denser to the east and west, opening up to the south, behind the simple altar.

»I spent an average of four hours a day producing these sketches, which form a picture I had in my head. I saw a path leading out of the forest, to an illuminated field. After reading the Book of Genesis in the Bible, I understood that this was the path that Adam and Eve followed when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Similarly, one day the students will have to leave the safe confines of the school and, like Adam and Eva, deal with the harsh realities of the outside world.«

Japan is situated in one of the world’s most seismologically active areas. Most earth tremors are too small to register, and major earthquakes are relatively uncommon. However, several major cities have been destroyed over the years. Under this constant threat, the risk of earthquakes has helped to shape Japanese construction techniques in many ways.Although the techniques developed are among the most advanced in the world, most are based on constructing a flexible and pliable frame that can distribute the forces and allow the building to move.

The great thing about the wooden frame of Niijima Gakuen Junior College Hall & Chapel is that it absorbs energy. It is strong, but also supple enough to be able to channel away the vibrations that occur in an earthquake, while small, randomly placed noggings make the structure sufficiently stiff. The double posts create a kind of side corridor, like the aisles found in Gothic cathedrals. They support each other and when the light streams in, the posts are transformed into trunks and branches in the swaying forest.

Takaharu Tezuka strongly believes that few architects would have devoted as much time to decorating a building as he has with this panel. Although he doesn’t consider himself an artist, he sees the work as an attempt to revive a methodology that has been lost in the field of architecture.

»There’s no boundary between art and architecture in this project. It has changed my attitude and helped me to let go a little. Finally, it feels like I’m free to do exactly what I want.«

Niijima Gakuen Junior College Hall & Chapel is not the first of the architectural practice’s projects to combine multiple functions. In fact, many of their works are characterised by a desire to unite two unexpected and disparate activities in one building, as seen in Chigasaki Zion Christian church and Mihato kindergarten, where a church and a nursery school are housed under the same roof. The firm also has a broad repertoire, covering everything from villas and schools to religious buildings and healthcare facilities. One example is Fuji kindergarten, located in a western suburb of Tokyo, which has been named the best nursery school in the world by UNESCO and others.

Now though, Takaharu Tezuka and his colleagues are waiting anxiously for feedback on how the teachers and students are finding the new chapel building. It was completed right at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, so it was not until April this year that the school finally reopened and Niijima Gakuen Junior College Hall & Chapel was put to its full use.

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