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IDEAS / architecture

Water Temple. A Found Ruin

5 February 2018

words:  Natalie Donat-Cattin

photos:  Jian Yong Khoo

Water temple, designed by Tadao Ando, hides in the inland of Awaji Island. Despite its close proximity to the sea (only a 15 min walk) the building turns its back to the ocean to embrace the hillside.

The road to reach it, is deserted and steep: a series of greenhouses and fields are the only panorama’s highlights. A light hiss of wind provokes a sovereign silence as we step on the gravelled pathway between the old Buddhist temple and the cemetery. As soon as nature surrounds us, a wide space opens up before us abruptly overlooked by a concrete wall: austere in its mass, yet violated by a square entryway. Like the red doors of the shinto temples, this marks the transition into a mystical environment. It is a symbol of passage, reflection and acceptance.

Upon crossing it – with a great surprise – we find ourselves standing in front of another solid wall of the same material, trapped between a linear and a circular surface. The trail, just adjacent to the latter, invites us to follow it in all its length. Its curved shape guides the hand, which timidly dares to caress its smooth finish.

The edge of the wall marks the entrance to a second space. Here a circle of water is embraced by the half-moon wall and cut in half by a staircase, penetrating into its depths. The descending passageway invites us to leave the earthly world.

Step by step, the water disappears, a bare wall replaces the trees, while the sky moves away, abandoning us to the nudity of the concrete. At the final landing two lateral opening awaits for us: the left one connecting to the temple, the right one to the toilet and offices.

The prayer room is also circular. It is protected by a shiny red wooden cage and hidden from sight. The change of material on the floor outlines the access into the sacred space. Shoes must be abandoned, like all superficial behaviours. The cold bare feet stroke the wooden deck, while the eyes become accustomed to the candles’ artificial lighting. It is in a state of mind of anxiety that we walk around the perimeter of the circle, at which half we are offered access to the godly hall. The gold of Buddha sparkles in the centre, never so bright as in the darkness.

Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested.” – In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

After leaving the central room we continue our journey through the corridor. The red bounces on the concrete wall, captured by its smoothness and creating an overall rosy atmosphere. The air is pervaded by a mystical, somewhat disturbing feeling. We have almost paced 360 degrees when we are finally greeted again by the natural light, invading the space through a grating and indicating the way out.

Water Temple is a found ruin we stumble upon: silent, forgotten, abandoned. No one is around. Nature, wind and water are the only spirits looking over our actions. The concrete, trapped in its hardness, observes dumbly. Everything seems to be allowed. Desolation reigns, in a kingdom where even the lilies are dead. Only a female voice reminds the community to pray. Cold, mechanical, chilling. In its stiffness, it seems to reproach us for having usurped the quiet of the place. It is art and part of the temple. Phantom of time and religion.

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architasters / project by Natalie Donat-Cattin and Jian Yong Khoo. It is a platform for speculation and discussion, functioning as a complementary repository for their design work.