August Journal Excerpts

In Praise of Shadows and Light

Dung Ngo

A visit to St. Anselm’s Catholic Church in Tokyo, a Brutalist structure imbued with handcraft traditions

Dung Ngo shares an excerpt from his AUGUST Journal, a biannual print magazine dedicated to the culture of a place. This story looks at St. Anselm’s Catholic Church, just of the Meguro train stop in Tokyo, with text by design historian Alexa Griffith Winton and photos by Yoshihiro Makino.

View up the concrete spiral staircase leading to the organ loft in St. Anselm’s Catholic Church. Photo © Yoshihiro Makino

Bohemian architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976) and French-American artist Noémi Pernessin Raymond (1889-1980) met on an Italian ocean liner bound for New York City in 1914. The couple married shortly after arriving to New York, initiating a long personal and professional collaboration that took them around the world, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal compound in Taliesin, to India, to Tokyo—twice—and their country retreat in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where Antonin’s studio became an incubator of sorts for young Japanese architects, including George Nakashima. Antonin worked as a draftsman in Cass Gilbert’s office, while Noémi studied art with Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia Teachers College. Finding success as a textile designer and weaver, Noémi became continually more involved in her husband’s architecture practice, eventually designing the interiors of many of his buildings.

The Raymonds first encountered Japan—both as a place and as a rich source of craft traditions and design philosophy—in 1919, while working on Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. After a year, they left Wright’s practice to establish their own, taking advantage of the growing interest in modern European architecture in Japan. They stayed until 1938, returning to New York when political tensions and the growing shadow of war made it impossible for the naturalized Americans to remain in Tokyo. The Raymonds later returned to Tokyo in 1947, where they remained until their retirement in 1973.

The nave of St. Anselm’s Catholic Church. Photo © Yoshihiro Makino

In describing the Raymonds’ body of work, the architecture theorist Kenneth Frampton writes that it combined “the liberative ethos of the modern movement with the indigenous building culture of Japan.” Throughout his career, Antonin insisted on the primacy of place. Drawing upon the vernacular architecture of Japan as both formal source material and philosophical touchstone, he used local materials and building traditions as key considerations in the design process. During his many years working abroad, he sought—as Frampton described—to marry the possibilities of modern construction methods with the country’s traditional building and handcraft traditions. Noémi’s contributions extended this consideration, often combining her own textiles and furniture designs with Japanese handcraft, including ceramics, textiles, and baskets.

The spatial potential of the Raymonds’ fusion of European and Japanese technologies and traditions is embodied by St. Anselm’s Catholic Church in downtown Tokyo. Built between 1952 and 1956, St. Anselm’s is the first of several exposed concrete churches Antonin and Noémi designed in postwar Japan. The axially planned church, which situates the entrance at the corner of the east elevation and the altar at the west, was also the first project in which Raymond experimented with folded panel construction. The church was established in 1947 by the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, whose rural campus is dominated by several highly sculptural concrete structures built between 1953 and 1961 by another notable modernist, Marcel Breuer.

The carved and gilt baldachin, designed by Antonin and Noémie, seemingly floats behind the altar. Photo © Yoshihiro Makino

Located on a compact lot immediately west of Tokyo’s Meguro station, St. Anselm’s Catholic Church is a tall, narrow concrete building with a gently curving roof. The rectangular structure is supported by nine pairs of folded columns. Vertical glazed strips are sliced into one side of each fold. The concrete surface of each folded panel is left unpainted, while the interstitial wall surfaces are covered in an ochre red pigment.

As in the sparsely ornamented yet spatially rich Cistercian abbeys found across Western Europe, light animates St. Anselm’s interior, stretching across its concrete surfaces towards the altar. The imprint of the long, narrow metal planks used as formwork emphasizes the verticality of the nave. The oblique angles formed by the folded structural plates are intersected by horizontal brackets spanning the glazed vertical apertures between each of the folded plates. The large, gently curved roof beams, likewise constructed of concrete textured by steel panel formwork, formally echo but do not exactly copy the structural folded panels. These beams also, perhaps, serve as an abstract reminder of the tectonic wonders and soaring spaces enabled by the ribbed vaults found in Gothic cathedrals. The corner edge of each beam seamlessly joins the acute angle of each wall panel at a precise 90 degrees. Throughout the structure, an utmost attention to detail—a trait synonymous with Japanese architecture at all scales—elevates this formally simple and materially austere space, offering a rich spatial discourse on transnational craftsmanship and tradition.

Noémi’s poetic iron sculptures representing the stations of the cross are installed in side niches. Photos © Yoshihiro Makino

The Raymonds infuse this uncompromisingly modern building with warmth through both materiality and the persistent reminders of craft and handwork. The contrast between the meticulously finished concrete surfaces and the polished, unpainted wood pews; the carved and gilt baldachin suspended like a floating textile over the altar, and Noémi’s poetic iron sculptures representing the stations of the cross as compositions of disembodied hands and unfinished iron crosses traveling around the church interior—in these details and more, the Raymonds’ designs for St. Anselm’s are instilled with their reverence for modernist structural technologies and formal vocabularies alongside an admiration for Japanese craft traditions.

While often described as ambassadors of a European-style modernism in Japan, the reverse was often just as true, and the Raymonds endeavored throughout their careers to share their deep knowledge and love of Japanese cultural heritage with Western audiences. In 1940, as political tensions increased between the U.S. and Japan, Antonin gave a lecture titled Common Ground of Traditional Japanese and Modern Architecture at the Japan Institute in New York, while Noémi later selected objects for Japanese Household Objects, the 1951 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The aim of this show was to highlight the quality of Japanese craftsmanship and support Japanese craftspeople in rebuilding their businesses while preserving their craft heritage in the politically and economically challenging postwar period.

A small side chapel housing the baptismal font is decorated with a vibrant mosaic tile floor, stained-glass windows, and modern icons. Photos © Yoshihiro Makino

Through their commitment to the study of Japanese vernacular buildings and traditional crafts, Antonin and Noémi Raymond perhaps absorbed the mingei ethos, in their reverence for craft and materiality reinforced by a commitment to functionality. Mingei, a movement that had begun in Tokyo in the 1920s, was aimed at preserving and celebrating Japan’s numerous folk arts and crafts in a rapidly changing, modernizing world. Transcending borders and cultures, the Raymonds’ work and life together reflect the words of mingei founder Soetsu Yanagi, who said: “Man is most free when his tools are appropriate to his needs.” ◆

St. Anselm’s Catholic Church, built between 1952 and 1956. Photos © Yoshihiro Makino

 

Alexa Griffith Winton is a design historian and educator in New York City. She writes about design, decorative arts, and interiors and is currently working on a book about the midcentury textile designer and weaver Dorothy Liebes. Winton works at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where she is the Manager of Content & Curriculum.

Yoshihiro Makino was born and raised in Tokyo, where the urban environment and eclectic culture both informed and inspired his photography path. Currently residing in Los Angeles, his work takes him around the world capturing interiors and portraits for a vast array of editorial and commercial clients such as Architectural Digest, WSJ Magazine, and Wallpaper.  He recently published the book The Open Hand: Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh (August Editions), a photographic essay on the modernist architect Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh project in India.

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