In the Odawara city of Kanagawa, Japan, facing Sagami Bay and leaning against the hillside of the Hakone Outer Rim is an architecture named Enoura Observatory.
The Japanese term for “Observatory” (sokkōjo) is derived from a kanji that denotes a site for astronomical and meteorological observations. Observing rain, wind directions and daylight to plan out the timing for everyday and agricultural affairs is one of the oldest kinds of human scientific activities. As technology advances, climate problems that once threatened human survival have become more easily forecasted and dealt with. Observatories were eventually unmanned and even abandoned to fall into ruin on the borders.
But Enoura Observatory is not an actual observatory. It is a museum designed by Shinsoken, a company founded by artist/photographer/antique collector/architect Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Why did a museum take on the name of an observatory?
Shinsoken, short for New Material Research Laboratory (Shinsozai Kenkyūjo), is an architectural firm co-founded by Sugimoto and architect Tomoyuki Sakakida in 2008. It centres around the concept of “Old is New” to draw brand new architectural design approaches from traditional materials and techniques. Shinsoken believes that their designs are able to connect past and present eras, to extend into the future.
The book Old is New compiles the works and concepts of Shinsoken over ten years. At the start, it recounts how Sugimoto’s contemplation on architectural design began from his experience of setting up exhibitions. While exhibiting his photography and installation works in museums around the world, he noticed that architects also leave strong marks in the spaces, so much so that they affect how works convey ideas. As a result, he started taking his works as focal points to envision the spaces best suited for their placements.
What Sugimoto hopes to achieve is to design just the right, appropriate space. When a space feels just right, Japanese people use the word miwakeru to describe it. “Despite being called a photographer, I have been working with water, air and light all along. Architecture is an art of a similar kind,” said Sugimoto.
Old is New focuses on discussing 6 materials and methods, namely stone, wood, wall, roof, window and garden. To Shinsoken, while these materials are antiquated, they contain enormous innovative potential.
Take stones for an example. In ancient Japan, castle walls are built by a technique called nozurazumi. Masons stacked natural, unpolished and locally quarried stones into a stonewall. They listened to the sounds of different stones, then made use of their uneven surfaces to create close to impossible balance. Just within Enoura Observatory, there is a castle wall passed down from ancient times.
Taking this traditional technique as a foundation, Shinsoken cleverly adds unpolished, natural boulders to its spatial designs. For instance, in Tea House Enzankyo in California, it uses stones to create a scenery outside the tea house. Taking a corner out of the expansive North American sky, it combines ancient stones in the garden and maple trees that change colours seasonally to compose a flowing landscape painting.
Opened in 2017, Enoura Observatory is a compound work that Sugimoto had envisioned for years. The site contains a tea house, a garden, a temple, a stone stage and a roman theatre. Following through the upward slope, one comes upon a suspended design much like Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The design, lifted up by a cypress structure and tiled with glass, is an optical glass stage that requires no nails. One stands on it, and the ocean stretches out under his feet.
The site was named an observatory because its design is based on the solar cycle and has taken into consideration light rays during different solar terms. During the summer solstice, light at sunrise travels through the “Summer Solstice Light-Worship 100-Meter Gallery”, which is barely supported by 37 glass windows and hangs 7 artworks from the Sea of Japan series. During the winter solstice, light rising from Sagami Bay enters directly through the “Winter Solstice Light-Worship Tunnel” that overlooks the sea.
“The winter solstice symbolises the rebirth of life. To observe the sky as ancient people did, that is precisely the origin of art. This place contains the origin that leads to the future,” said Sugimoto. Inside the tunnel, an old well seems to symbolise time itself.
With the current civil engineering technology, humans can build all kinds of large-scale architecture with speed and under low cost. The consumerist lifestyle has, however, caused a return of climate crises to the human horizon again.
Renowned worldwide for his Sea of Japan series, Sugimoto has asserted all along that as we gaze at the sea, the feeling it calls forth parallels how ancient people felt when they gazed at the sea, and likewise for people in the future too. The ocean contains aspects that can be called “the origin”.
The Shin (New) in Shinsoken perhaps points to viewing the origin with new eyes again and again. Only through this is it possible for the relics of the future to be erected.
To some, time is too grand a topic to consider. But to contemplate the “materials” that form the self at times and renew the self continuously is also an interesting thing.