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Church of Sky by Itami Jun Architects, Jeju Island, South Korea

An austere and simple Korean Christian Church. Photography by Shinichi Sato

Just over three years ago, Japanese architect Itami Jun was asked to design a small church on Jeju, South Korea’s largest island. The project was finally completed last year. The rural site lies near a quartet of new art museums and the church will eventually serve a new town being built in the vicinity.

Christianity’s roots in the Korean peninsula date back to the establishment of the first Catholic prayer house in 1784. Today, with the exodus of Christians from North Korea following the Korean War, and boosted by a vigorous period of expansion in the 1960s and ’70s, the religion is firmly established and practised with an astonishing fervour. The capital, Seoul, contains one of the world’s largest Christian congregations (750,000 members of a single gospel church) and many South Koreans regard the constancy of their faith as a factor in the country’s economic growth. The historical success of Christianity can also be attributed to its development as an indigenous lay movement, rather than being imposed by a foreign ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Poised in the rural landscape like a great ark, Itami’s Church of Sky reflects the confidence of the modern Christian community.

Yet such confidence does not make for gratuitously flashy or piously anodyne architecture. Itami’s language of simple, quasi-vernacular forms (the building also resembles a barn) coupled with a restrained palette of materials and nuanced play of light, seem more inspired by Japanese austerity and understatement than some of the more hectic expressions of Western Christianity. There’s little to distinguish it explicitly as a church, save for the mullions that form a slim cross high up in the translucent glass prow of the building’s south facade.

Surrounded by a tranquil pool traversed by stone walkways, the building is symbolically separated from its earthly surroundings. The long volume is divided more or less equally into the chapel at one end and parish offices at the other, with an entrance hall at its midpoint. The main staircase and minister’s room are separated and contained in a bar set at right angles to the main volume. A lower subterranean floor houses a large refectory, kitchen, storage, plant and a parish hall.

Supported by a steel structure wrapped in timber, the pitched roof flares up gently over the volume of the church to form a shallow prow overlooking the pool and landscape beyond. Its pixellated, pointillist surface is the sole concession to ornament.

Triangular zinc panels finished in three different colour coatings, from anthracite to quartz, are arranged in a computer-generated patchwork pattern so the roof scintillates like a giant metal quilt.

‘The biggest concern,’ says Itami, ‘was to make a structure “conscious” of the sky. In other words, strike a balance between the roof, or rather the upper structure, and the sky’. Natural light is funnelled into the entrance hall through a tapering, rhomboidal shaft and the side walls of the church are clad in long strips of translucent and clear glass. Changes in light and shadow are manifest in the interior, washing through the sober space and subtly imparting a sense of the numinous.

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