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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

Bearing Witness: Junzo Yoshimura and the Sanrizuka Church
Nicolai Kruger
The simple wooden church at Sanrizuka was designed by Junzo Yoshimura and completed in 1954.

The Story of Sanrizuka Church and Architecture of Junzo Yoshimura is in part a career retrospective of the revered Japanese modernist architect Junzo Yoshimura (1908-97). The central focus of the exhibition, however, is one of his earlier and lesser-known works, the Sanrizuka Church (1954). This is the fifth installment of Gallery A4's wooden modernism series. Located on the lobby level of Takenaka Corporation's Tokyo headquarters in Toyocho, Koto-ku, the in-house gallery aims to promote architectural awareness by putting on exhibitions, workshops, and seminars with a particular emphasis on craft, sketching, photography, and tools of the trade.   

Full-height photographs of the church's interior with actual pews give visitors a sense of being inside the space. Photo by Nicolai Kruger   Video and original drawings of Sanrizuka Church. Photo by Nicolai Kruger

Yoshimura's work demonstrates a primary concern with the needs and comfort of those who occupy his buildings. The subtle, intimate spaces he created employ traditional Japanese materials and techniques while exploring modernist principles. He is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura on the International House of Japan in Roppongi (1955). He went on to other notable commissions, including the Japan Society in New York (in collaboration with Gruzen & Partners, 1971), the east and west wings of the Nara Museum (1972), and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo (1977).  

It is not entirely clear how it came to be that Yoshimura was commissioned to design a small wooden church located in the rural Sanrizuka district of Narita in Chiba Prefecture. Perhaps it was because he had more experience with Christian churches than any other practicing Japanese architect at the time. Between graduating from Tokyo School of Art (now Tokyo University of the Arts) in 1928 and establishing his own office in Tokyo in 1941, Yoshimura worked for the Czech-born architect Antonin Raymond in both his Tokyo and Pennsylvania studios. Raymond designed several churches in Japan during that period.

The exhibit includes records from the Sanrizuka Protest Movement. An aerial photo of the planned development site for New Tokyo (Narita) International Airport (1967) provides context to understand the impact of its construction.   Junzo Yoshimura's hand sketches.

Sanrizuka Church was established by Christian farmers who settled on what were formerly the grounds of an imperial estate after returning from World War II. Their congregation was led by Issaku Tomura, a third-generation lay preacher and fine artist. Tomura collected funds from the farmers to build a chapel that would become the central gathering place for their community. With very limited resources Yoshimura managed to help Tomura realize his vision of a spiritually rich space suitable for prayer and reflection. The building is of modest scale, with exposed timber trusses and framing; the lower portion of the walls is clad cedar panels and the upper portion is simple, white plaster infill. The exhibit features a beautifully detailed model, construction details, and drawings of the church. Actual pews are on display, surrounded by nearly full-scale photos of the interior, giving visitors a sense of being in the actual space.

Original furniture pieces and large-scale photo of Yoshimura's Summer House in Karuizawa, 1962.   Original sketchbook and architectural accoutrements from Yoshimura's studio. Photo by Nicolai Kruger

In 1966, just 12 years after the church's completion, development plans for the New Tokyo International Airport (what we now refer to simply as "Narita") were made public. Suddenly the church, which was the heart of its community, was under threat of being torn down to make way for the new airport, and members became caught up in the decades-long Sanrizuka Protest Movement. Tomura was outspoken against the government using eminent domain to build the airport and became a critical figure in uniting varied groups toward the common goal of thwarting its construction. He was elected chairperson of the movement's Opposition League (Hantai Domei) and used the church as a staging area for passionate demonstrations. In Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan, David Ernest Apter describes the dramatic struggle surrounding the building of Narita International Airport. Of Sanrizuka, Apter declares, "this small place with few inhabitants came to be a symbol of the more abstract and pressing concerns . . . students, farmers, militants and activists joined together to mobilize against the authorities . . . they held rallies and meetings designed to attract public support."

The "Story of Sanrizuka Church" isn't quite that of David and Goliath (as we know, Narita International Airport was ultimately built), but Junzo Yoshimura's little wooden chapel was in fact spared demolition and is still in use today. That it survived is a testament to the kind of meaningful place-making that architects strive for.

Structural model of Yoshimura's Summer House in Karuizawa, 1962.

Photographs are courtesy of Gallery A4 unless otherwise noted.

The Story of Sanrizuka Church and Architecture of Junzo Yoshimura
Gallery A4
1 November 2013 - 23 January 2014
Nicolai Kruger, AIA
Nicolai Kruger is an architect managing international projects at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Japan. She has been living in Tokyo since 2006. She received her BFA in Design at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, followed by her Masters of Architecture at the University of Oregon. Her principal areas of interest include mixed-use, temporary structures, exhibition and lighting design.
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