The Sayama projects demonstrate how far architecture can go to help us make sense of our place in the world
A man sits at a table at the end of a long, curved space with flowers, a cup of tea and a box of tissues. He stares out of the window over a reflecting infinity pool to the Sayama Hills. The configuration and atmosphere of the place offers privacy. Alone in his thoughts and memories, tears run down his cheeks.
I am here to visit two buildings – the community hall in which the man sits, and a chapel – both part of the Sayama Lakeside Cemetery. Witnessing this intimate moment was a humble reminder of the purpose of the place an hour’s train ride west of Tokyo, in a reservoir and recreation area known for its natural beauty.
The Osawa family set up the Boenfukyukai Foundation, which owns Sayama Lakeside, in 1969. At the time, Japan was experiencing economic growth, urban migration and a rise in nuclear families, putting demands on cemeteries that could not be met by the government. Changing attitudes to religion required an alternative to the tradition of being cremated and buried in the family plot at a local temple. The foundation now owns five multi-faith cemeteries in the two most populated regions of Japan, greater Tokyo and Kansai.
Hideyuki Osawa, director of the Boenfukyukai Foundation, acknowledges that Sayama is not only a place of final rest but also a place to mourn and remember. As a commissioner of architecture, he champions that the buildings must not solely be functional, but also offer spiritual solace. ‘Today many people kill for religion and race,’ Osawa says. ‘I wanted to create a space of peace that was interdenominational and welcomed even those who have no religion, to show people should come together in harmony.’
Ritual and a connection to nature permeate many aspects of Japanese culture, especially at the time of death. Over 90 per cent of Japanese people will have a Buddhist funeral that traditionally entails a wake, funeral and cremation, taking place over a number of days. These rituals are conducted to assist the spirit of the deceased to make the transition from a life tied to the earth and to move into the afterlife. While contemporary attitudes to funerary rituals may have changed as time and money are at a premium, the values that underlie them remain. Families will continue to hold ceremonies at the gravesides on significant dates, and so the experience of the cemetery over time remains important.
In 2010, Osawa decided to build a reception building or ‘community hall’ for the Sayama Lakeside, the foundation’s first cemetery. He embarked on a worldwide architectural study tour and at the same time hosted an invited competition for architects under 40 with an open brief for a ‘timeless’ building that valued the feelings of cemetery visitors. On his travels, Osawa visited a small Catholic church near Mexico City by Félix Candela, and found himself moved to tears by a feeling of protection and wonder. ‘When I entered the chapel, I felt I was protected by some mysterious, invisible power, even though I’m not Christian. It was then I had the idea to build a chapel.’
Hiroshi Nakamura of NAP won the competition, and a chapel was added to his brief. Both projects once complete would go on to be highly commended in the AR’s Emerging Architecture Awards, first the community hall in December 2013, then the chapel in December 2015.
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In both of Nakamura’s now-realised buildings in Sayama – the community hall nestled into the landscape at the cemetery entrance, and the chapel on the edge of the forest – you become strongly aware of the experiential qualities of the spaces; their scale, the nature of the materials, the changing light and framing of views. Architecture here is a vital tool to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the visitor and encourage them to enter the spiritual world of the departed.
Externally, the community hall has a calm understated presence and, internally, an atmosphere that harnesses the ephemeral qualities of nature. It plays an important role in mediating the daily, secular activity of the town and the sacred space of the cemetery. The roof that looks like an open parasol has a hole in the centre with a Japanese maple planted atop the service core. On entering you are guided around a gradually widening perimeter space with windows onto a reflection pool at sill height. With wide eaves rising from 1.35m above the surface of the pool, the roof is supported by 120 exposed timber beams, all with minor variations in size, length and tilt. The dramatic ceiling is free of lights, with natural light reflected through the space. The low eaves offer restricted views into the surrounding landscape, that Nakamura describes as recreating the half-open gaze of Zen meditation. The sentiment is palpable.
‘As much as possible, local industry and craftsmen were employed in the creation of the exquisite detailing’
A tinted leather bench runs along the perimeter, supplemented by tables and chairs where the space widens. When seated the eye is drawn out to the distant landscape or mesmerised by wind on the water’s surface. When sitting on the bench facing inwards, the gaze is drawn towards the window high above the polished wall of the core and the tree in the centre of the building silhouetted against the sky. The contrast of these two experiences is powerful and visitors can seek out either, depending on their mood. Beyond the seating area, still overlooking the reflection pool, are four spaces for family gatherings, separated by sheer pleated curtain partitions – custom-made by textile designer Yoko Ando – that give each group a sense of privacy while maintaining visual continuity through the building.
As much as possible, local industry and craftsmen were employed in the creation of the exquisite detailing. Materials were chosen to express their natural patina. The impact on all the senses is taken into consideration, with custom-made brass fixtures in the bathrooms and leather-wrapped cast-iron door handles.
Like the community hall, the 110m2 chapel draws on the traditional view of the forest as both a source of life and a place to return after death. The chapel is physically and conceptually defined by its A-frame structure referring to the traditional gassho-zukuri style – ‘shaped like praying hands’. Some 251 raking beams of forest larch are placed at a unique angle and come together at an 8m-high ridge. The footprint of the building is relatively small and by contrast the exposed beams that give the interior its character appear to stretch from the ground to the sky. The A-frames span out in different directions and wrap in arcs around select trees, creating internal spatial layering while framing views through their glazed ends of either the town in the distance, the cemetery, or the forest. The body is drawn around the curvature of the space and the eye coaxed upwards and out. The interior, like that of the community hall, is minimal and calm through concealed services, precise detailing and craftsmanship. The altar, towards which the floor slopes down gently, is also made of water-polished slate and conceals provision for the different religious rituals, transforming with ease for instance from a Buddhist ceremony to a Christian service. This is a spiritual rather than specifically religious space.
Osawa was intimately involved in both the design and the production of the buildings and continues to see to their upkeep, giving them the attention, he says, of newborn children. But he has also moved on to his next project at the Inagawa Reien cemetery, 40 kilometres north of Osaka. Here, a chapel and visitor centre designed by David Chipperfield Architects will open in the spring of 2017. Located at the foot of a grand flight of steps leading to a small shrine that overlooks the cemetery, the red concrete volumes will act as a threshold and gateway between the outer world and private commemoration. A cedar-clad storage facility at the entrance to the cemetery, designed by Akira Koyama of Key Operation, opened here last year. Intended to act as a gateway, the design is a simple box clad in charred cedar planks that match the local buildings upon approach, but when leaving, the cemetery reveals angled fins capped with red iron oxide-coated boards. The care taken in the detail of even this small, private building shows Osawa’s commitment to architecture in cemetery design.
As witnessed in the grieving man in the reception building, the Sayama projects demonstrate how far architecture can go to help us make sense of our place in the world, and offer solace to the visitor at all stages of their emotional journey. Nakamura acknowledges that ‘initially, I thought that designing the architecture for a cemetery meant to design the final moment, the ending of people’s lives, but I feel differently now’. Nakamura believes that facing the death of a loved one is equally about dealing with one’s own immortality – and that architecture needs to allow for this.