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Spatial Emptiness and Empty Cross: Church of the Light by Tadao Ando / Jin Baek

By May 29, 2021May 2nd, 2022No Comments

Spatial Emptiness and Empty Cross: Church of the Light by Tadao Ando

Jin Baek

Jin Baek is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at Pennsylvania State University where he teaches architectural theory and design studio. He is the author of Nothingness: Tadao Ando’s Christian Sacred Space (Routledge 2009). His research interests include the cross-cultural issues between East Asia and the West in architecture and urbanism. He is also an architect practicing in collaboration with Youngsun Sonn.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009

What is the cultural significance of the spatial emptiness and the cross of light in Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light (1989) [Figure1, 2; Figure 1 Tadao Ando, Interior 1, Church of the Light; Figure 2 Tadao Ando, Interior 2, Church of the Light]? For this inquiry, I’d like to situate the church according to two factors indicative of the theological milieu of the twentieth century: the discussion of spatial emptiness by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), an influential Protestant theologian of the past century, and the perception of the cross by Daisetz Suzuki (1870-1966), the father of modern Zen Buddhism.
Tillich discussed the significance of spatial emptiness for a Christian space of worship in two aspects. First, the spatial emptiness honestly reflects the atheistic condition of the twentieth century stained by world wars, fascist and imperial regimes, and the genocide of millions. Tillich considered the removal of images and sculptures from the church and the resulting emptiness to be symbolic of the God who disappeared from human sight. Yet, this spatial emptiness was not hopeless for Tillich, but was embedded with the hope that God may return to renew His presence. Secondly, emptiness is also an essence of Protestant theology, continuing the iconoclastic traditions of Judaism and Islam. Emptiness speaks of the infinite distance between the divine and the human, a distance to be bridged only by Christ. From this follows the ideal of what Tillich called “sacred emptiness” that symbolizes the distance.
Built about a quarter century after Tillich’s inspirational statements on emptiness, the Church of the Light by Ando is a paradigmatic example of “sacred emptiness.” The church is remarkably restrained. Its material palette is limited primarily to concrete. The walls and the ceiling lack any superficial representational images, reflecting Ando’s focus on the emptiness defined by the non-figurative architectural elements. Even the diagonal independent wall in the church [Figure 3 Tadao Ando, Site plan, Church of the Light] is not motivated by manneristic formal composition, but conducts practical performances to form a triangular entrance and to veil the single side window of the chapel at a distance so that the introduction of direct sunlight to the interior is prevented.
Ando’s “sacred emptiness” is further exceptional in that it is not merely empty, but is characterized by the presence of an enigmatic cross. As if responding to Tillich’s affirmative wish towards emptiness as the condition for the return of God, the spatial emptiness of the church highlights the cross, the universal symbol of Christianity. Without the cross, the emptiness may be sacred, but it would symbolize only the unreachable transcendence of God, as there is no mediation of Christ symbolized by the cross. Simultaneously, the location of the cross is distinctive. It stands between the inside and the outside, while its body is empty. Because of this in-between status, the cross functions like a slit that brings light to the interior. Accordingly, two layers contradictory to each other are joined into one: the iconic permanence of the cross and the constant phenomenal changeability of light. When the light comes in through the cross, the cross is the light, and the light is the cross.
This contradictory joining generates a unique perceptual experience. When the light comes in and hits the exceptionally smooth wall and ceiling, something extraordinary comes into being. Thanks to the smoothness, light does not stay on the surface. The instant it hits the wall, the light gets refracted back to the emptiness. And, in this process, the wall appears as if it were gilded [Figure 1 Church of the Light, Interior]. Simultaneously, the chapel appears as if it were filled with vaporized gold. While using one of the most mundane and economical materials, Ando accomplishes the dream of Abbot Suger (1081-1151), who saw the splendor of gilded objects and gilded space as the fundamental factor for sacred setting. When this dream is realized, the cross appears fictively—not fictitiously—as the abundant source of gold.
The cultural significance of this cross of emptiness and of light becomes evident when apprehended in reference to a striking view of the cross by Suzuki, the most influential Japanese Buddhist of the twentieth century. Suzuki saw the cross as the symbol of inhumanity. He connected justifiably the vertical posture of Jesus with a bleeding imagery. In contrast, he endorsed the horizontal posture of Buddha in his deathbed [Figure 4 Nirvana], which symbolizes the Buddhist idea of death “[as] rest and peace, not agony.”
The empty cross of the Church of the Light counters this claim by a Buddhist. Suzuki’s view about the bloody twisted image of Jesus on the cross is found untenable in the case of the cross of light in the Church of the Light. The cross Suzuki probably had in his mind was a Baroque crucifix; in contrast, the cross in the Church of the Light is empty, defining itself as a pure icon with no material basis [Figure 5 Tadao Ando, Sketch, Church of the Light]. This emptiness allows the cross to operate as a slit for the introduction of light and to appear as if it were an unlimited source of gold to gild the chapel. For this reason, this cross is not concerned with the unbearable persecution of Jesus, but rather with his glory to follow the Passion. In this regard, the emptiness of the cross is a cross-cultural synthesis between Christianity and Zen Buddhism. The cross’ emptiness does not deemphasize Jesus’ suffering on the cross to entertain the wish of Zen Buddhism, but illuminates the glory of the resurrected Jesus, a fact not fully attended to by Zen Buddhism.