Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2017

St. Mary’s Cathedral Tokyo

Ever since I went to Metabolism – The City of the Future architecture exhibition at Mori Art Museum I’ve become more and more interested in the golden era of avant-garde Japanese architecture that started around the middle of the last century through to the late 70’s. My love for Nakagin Capsule Tower is already on record, as is that of Kyoto International Conference Center, the latter of which was designed by a member of the Kenzo Tange school of architects. I knew he had also designed buildings in Tokyo, and I knew he was responsible for St. Mary’s Cathedral (東京カテドラル聖マリア大聖堂 Tōkyō Katedoraru Sei Maria Daiseidō) located in Bunkyo-ku in the center of the city. Well this week I managed to find time to go over and take a look. Not knowing what to expect, I took my camera along anyway and made my way by Tokyo Metro to Waseda station as it’s easier for me than Edogawabashi station (although if you’re planning to go, both will do you fine). After about a 15 minute walk through pretty residential streets I saw the bell tower which is basically an obelisk-like stone structure which stands separate from the main building. Once I reached the site I was initially surprised by how modern it looked. It was built in 1964, so this puts it slightly before Kyoto Int. Conference Center, but to some extent it appears to be in better condition. As you walk around the building (and it is possible to view it from all angles if you walk through the car parks) you get an idea of its size, which is impressive, and the reflections on the steel-clad exterior change depending on what angle you view it from. The best was yet to come though, as the interior for me was even better.

In keeping with the architect’s other work, the interior is both brutal and other-wordly with its steep concrete walls which rise up to meet in the center, and the central shaft of light which bisects the vault of the ceiling. Straightaway I was reminded of the final scene of Star Wars IV: a new hope where Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca receive their awards for defeating the empire. This reminded me of when I visited Kyoto Int. Conference Center because I remember being reminded of The Empire Strikes Back when I saw that building – more than just a coincidence? I’m no architecture expert, and I’m not going to repeat what you can already read on the Wikipedia entry for this building, but on a pop-cultural reference tip: it also reminded me of the kind of architecture you see in the Vampire Hunter D movies, especially Bloodlust, where you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is a church or a spacecraft, where gothic meets the space-age.

I made sure I had a good look around before I left. Really, I was looking for the crypt. I knew that almost all Roman Catholic cathedrals have one where they interre the remains of key members of the church. After almost giving up I found a door at the back of the confessional booths (yes, finding those was also cool in itself) that lead on to a corridor. There was absolutely nobody there and it was totally silent. The corridor was made of the same stone as the rest of the interior – it felt really oppressive. It was quite a labyrinth and there were a lot of twists and turns which I couldn’t reconcile with the line of the exterior at all. Finally I went down more steps and I was in the first chamber. There were 3 tombs like pyramids of marble with flat tops on my left which were made up of what could be described as blocks, each one studded on 4 corners with dome-headed steel rivets. There are more of these throughout the crypt, which was extensive, but surely the strangest tombs I’ve ever seen. There’s a funeral chapel which also has a secret room with a one-way mirror window. The crypt was pretty heavy so I made my way back up through the corridors to the main part of the Cathedral and I did think at one point how Tadao Ando must have been influenced by the work of Kenzo Tange as his corridors at 21_21 Design Sight are very similar. After one last look down the center of the cathedral and up at the enormous organ on the mezzanine I went back outside to face the hot, humid Tokyo summer once again.

After visiting this building I’m interested to see more of his work, and I’ve since been looking for what other buildings he has designed. It turns out that Tange was responsible for most of the iconic buildings in Tokyo. For example, he also designed Yoyogi National Gymnasium (for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (the building with the twin towers), Shinjuku Park Tower (which houses the Park Hyatt Hotel of Lost In Translation fame) and the very recent cocoon-like structure of Mode Gakuen Tower, also in Shinjuku. All of these more well-known structures I’m not particularly enamored with, although the olympic stadium is incredible, it’s his lesser-known, and certainly less-visited cathedral which stands out for me as his masterpiece.


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