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Do|Co|Mo|Mo|Japan|15 : St. Mary’s Cathedral : Kenzo Tange

Do|Co|Mo|Mo is an international organisation dedicated to the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement. The Japanese branch has selected 100 works as representative of the development of the Modern Movement in Japan. In a series of short posts I will feature some of the selected works that I have had the chance to visit and photograph. This post features St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo, designed by Kenzo Tange and opened in 1964...


St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (also known as Tokyo Cathedral) was opened in the same year as the Yoyogi Olympic Stadia designed by Tange for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Both projects explore the use of parabolic geometry in order to achieve large open spans with a relatively lightweight structure. However the structural approaches taken in the two projects are different. The Yoyogi Stadia design marks a new departure for Tange into the use of cable suspension as a lighter and cheaper alternative to the shell structures he had previously used and of which St. Mary’s Cathedral is an example.

In a series of projects designed in collaboration with the structural engineer Yoshikatsu Tsuboi, Tange had been investigating the possibilities of concrete folded-plate and shell structures since the 1950’s. Tsuboi was the foremost expert on shell design in Japan at that time and examples of shell structures on which the two had collaborated include Hiroshima Children’s Library and Ehime Prefectural Hall (both 1953), Sunpu Kaikan in Shizuoka City (1957) and Totsuka Country Club in Yokohama (1961). St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo was the culmination of Tange and Tsuboi’s exploration of shell structures.


The building consists of eight hyperbolic paraboloid shells arranged in pairs to create four quadrants separated by glazed gaps that form the shape of a cross on plan.

Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s fair of 1958, with structural design by Iannis Xenakis, may have been influential in the design of the cathedral and the Yoyogi Stadia. The cathedral adopted elements of the Philips Pavilion shape, particularly its verticality, which Tange used to reflect the Christian tradition in church design. Meanwhile the cable suspension structure of the Philips Pavilion might have suggested an approach to the Yoyogi Stadia design although other, more direct influences are apparent and will be examined in a later post that will look specifically at the Yoyogi project.


St. Mary’s Cathedral is thought by some to be Tange’s least successful design, the architectural historian David Stewart going so far as to say that the less said about Tokyo Cathedral the better.[i] The concept is perhaps too simplistic, the symbolism of the cruciform top-light too crude, and some of the detailing is certainly clumsy. The choice of quasi-industrial materials is used to much better effect in the hands of designers like Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, as is their understanding of the liturgy, in a series of ecclesiastical buildings they designed in England from the mid 1950’s onwards. In comparison to their thoughtful, knowledgeable, multi-layered approach Tange’s design looks like a throwaway one-liner.

St. Mary's Cathedral is hemmed in by nondescript buildings and there is no cathedral precinct to speak of. The ground that is available is taken up by car parking and service areas and there is no ceremonial route or approach. These faults may have been outwith the control of the architect but, given Tange’s desire throughout his career to create civic spaces in the city, it is disappointing that he could not achieve more in this instance.

For all that, St. Mary’s Cathedral is where Tange chose to have his funeral service when he died in 2005.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). West elevation.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). View from south west.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). South elevation.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). Cladding detail.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). South elevation.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). Bell tower.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). Roof/cladding detail.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). Interior looking east.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). Altar.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). Interior looking west.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo : Kenzo Tange (1964). View from north west.

All images by John Barr unless otherwise noted

© John Barr 2023

[i] Stewart. David B. The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture : 1868 to the Present. Kodansha International (1987) pg.218.


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