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Joy of Angels Bell Tower

Hiroko Koyama

In 1989, Pei was asked to design a bell tower to complete the Misono sanctuary of Shinji Shumeikai, a religious community devoted to beauty in nature and art, located in a forest preserve outside Kyoto, Japan. Both the land and the buildings are considered sacred. The precinct is approached on a stone path with an ablutions fountain for purification before leading to an enormous plaza that can seat more than 5,000 people around the sanctuary building designed by Minoru Yamasaki (1983). To heighten the sense of procession, Pei planted a new stand of trees to shield the sanctuary from direct view during approach, and positioned the bell tower at the head of the path, as if an extension upward. The 200-foot-high tower rises from a 23-foot square base and flares out toward the top to end in a slender blade, 60 feet wide and just 2 inches thick. The tower’s graduated courses of white Vermont granite measure 7 feet high at the base and diminish as they rise to reinforce the impression of great height.

The curvature of the shaft echoes inversely the great sloped roof of Yamasaki’s sanctuary, but direct inspiration came from a Japanese bachi, an ancient form of plectrum, or pick, used on stringed instruments, which Pei had purchased when visiting Japan in 1954. In a celebrated temple not far from Misono, Buddha of the Western Paradise is surrounded by a choir of angel musicians, one holding a bachi. As believers maintain that the bell tower’s carillon joins in the musical accompaniment, it was christened “The Tower of Angels.” Within the shaft, an elevator and spiral stairs climb 128 feet to an observation deck and a musician’s cabin above. From this skylit space, the fifty cast bronze bells are played, both manually and by computerized system that sounds at regular intervals throughout the day. The bells are mounted in three tiers within the tower’s 28 feet x 26 feet void, protected by a bronze roof that serves doubly to reflect sound. The carillon was fabricated in Holland by the Royal Eijsbouts bell foundry; it is the only carillon in Japan equipped to play western music.

Pei’s smallest commission was also his simplest and most sculptural exercise in pure form. It would lead two years later to Miho Museum, one of Pei’s greatest works.


Site elevation / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Design Team: I. M. Pei, Design Principal, with Chris Rand, Design Architect

I.M. Pei, Architect