Tokyo, Japan CNN  — 

Light bursts into the dark room through a horizontal slit and an intersecting vertical line.

In the simple pews behind the mesmerizing cross-shaped glow, scores of visitors snap pictures on their phones of the concrete installation.

They are inside a life-sized replica of the Church of the Light, the famous Osaka chapel by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, which perfectly demonstrates his signature manipulation of the relationship between concrete, space and light.

Inside, its solemnity is breathtaking. Carving a cruciform into a reinforced concrete wall evokes such a pure feeling of spirituality it seems ludicrous it hadn’t been done before 1989.

Church of the Light, Osaka

But that’s the beauty of an Ando design. “(My work) seems like something which anyone can make,” he tells CNN. “But (nobody) else can make it. It is my architecture.”

The National Art Center, Tokyo has erected the structure on its terrace for its huge retrospective of Ando life’s work that runs until December 18.

The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, in St Louis, United States -- a classic Tadao Ando building.

In English, the show is called “Endeavors,” but in Japanese, the name translates more accurately as “Challenge” – a title that speaks not only to Ando’s personal struggles but also to the inherent problem of exhibiting the work of an architect.

The installation is a powerful reply to that problem, but Ando says the real point of the exhibition is to inspire people to “go and see the real ones.”

Boxing clever

Ando is a household name in Japan, and his celebrity is expected to attract 150,000 visitors to the exhibition, many from beyond the architecture world.

Tadao Ando in 1999.

“Everybody can enjoy Ando’s work,” says Yayoi Motohashi, curator of “Endeavors.” “And his biography is really encouraging. He didn’t have enough money to get an education. He did everything himself.”

Ando’s unlikely rise from obscurity to design some of the world’s most iconic buildings for its richest people is something of an urban legend.

Tado Ando's Church on the Water.

The self-taught Japanese architect was born in 1941 the eldest of twin boys, who were separated in their infancy. Ando went to live with his grandmother, who nurtured in him a talent for craftsmanship.

His younger years had no trace of great promise: he worked briefly as a professional boxer and a lorry driver, before aged 24 boarding a Siberian train to Europe “to see the world.”