A Tadao Ando chapel may soon find a home in Bellevue

The building designed by the acclaimed Japanese architect would be donated by an Eastside arts patron, Barney Ebsworth. A site has been found, but it will take an economic recovery to fund it. Seattle tried but failed to land the prize.
Crosscut archive image.

An incarnation of the Church of Light in Ibaraki-shi, Osaka, Japan. (Wikimedia Commons)

The building designed by the acclaimed Japanese architect would be donated by an Eastside arts patron, Barney Ebsworth. A site has been found, but it will take an economic recovery to fund it. Seattle tried but failed to land the prize.

Some years ago, the noted art collector Barney Ebsworth announced that he would like to donate land and a chapel, designed by the leading Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, to the Eastside or to Seattle. There ensued the predictable neighborhood battles, and the chapel pinged from the Eastside (Bridle Trails didn't want the traffic) to Seattle (north Capitol Hill had a cow), and then ponged back to Bellevue.

The good news is that the chapel, which will also serve as a music venue and meeting place, has found a site, just five minutes east of downtown Bellevue in a cul de sac along the Lake Hills Connector, where the city has a greenbelt and where Ebsworth has purchased an adjoining seven acres for his project. Ebsworth gives the city, particularly its Parks Department, high marks for finding the site and being "remarkably creative" in seeing that Bellevue has parks and green space for years to come.

Alas, there's a hitch, and this time it's not NIMBYism. The company Ebsworth was going to sell, in order to fund the project (in the $20 million range), has lost value dramatically in the last year, so Ebsworth says the project is now "on hold" while he waits for a better time to sell his investment. "By this time next year," he says, "we may be back in business for the project."

The story of this chapel-yet-to-happen is a fascinating one. Pope John Paul II in 1995 decided to commemorate the year 2000 by inviting some of the leading architects of the world to compete for a modernist work called the Jubilee Chapel. Ando was one of those invited, along with Santiago Calatrava, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Gunter Behnisch, and (the winner) Richard Meier. It's the plans for that unbuilt Ando chapel, somewhat scaled back in size, that Ebsworth wants to bring to the Seattle area. Ebsworth, a wealthy businessman formerly of St. Louis, had met and come to admire Ando greatly for his work in designing the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts building in St. Louis.

The proposed chapel would be set in trees, a serene building such as Ando, a master of light and simple forms, excells in building. (The Seattle firm of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen would be the local associate.) Ebsworth, who is a major collector and benefactor to the Seattle Art Museum, wants the chapel to be open for many public uses, and be largely secular except for one sung high-Episcopal service a week, and the grounds would eventually serve as a burial site for him. A leading acoustical firm, Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, has been hired, which bodes well for the use of the chapel for small concerts.

Seattle made a run at getting the prize. The first site Ebsworth purchased, an awkward one on north Capitol Hill winding down the hillside toward Boyer, was quickly nixed by the neighbors. I and others got involved scouting for other sites, with Mayor Greg Nickels personally suggesting a few places and Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura also scouting for a possible site. Most good wooded sites, such as the eastern edge of Discovery Park, had long lists of prior claimants; others had environmental or parking issues. While the chapel is not associated with any church, it is still a bit tricky to have a religious building on public grounds.

With not much happening, Ebsworth turned to Bellevue, which quickly found what seems to be an ideal site, fully wooded. If it eventually gets built, the chapel will become a huge asset for the Eastside and probably draw architectural pilgrims from around the world. Ando is Japan's leading architect, particularly known for the way he can set buildings into a landscape and for the "secular spirituality" of his religious buildings, notably the Church of Light near Osaka, his birthplace.

One hopes the chapel has been saved. It may have a few architectural issues, since it's a building designed for a different site and something may be lost in proportions as it is scaled back. But Ando is one of the greatest architects in the world, winner of the 1995 Pritzker Prize, and an extraordinary master of light in religious spaces. His most recent American work, opening this weekend, is an addition to the Clark Art Institute in the Berkshires, his first museum project in a rural setting. It has his famous signatures: simple materials (concrete and cedar) an uncluttered minimalism, and virtuoso use of natural light.

Someday, we may have an Ando masterwork to join the growing collection of architectural works by major architects. It's encouraging to see both Bellevue and Tacoma are now competing with Seattle in nabbing such buildings, even if it is a little chastening to think that Seattle could not overcome its usual obstacles and let this one get away.


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