Hiroshi Sugimoto

Enoura Observatory

Ulf Meyer
16. April 2018
Photo: Ulf Meyer

Famed Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto founded the Odawara Art Foundation in 2009 to "foster the advancement of Japanese culture while adopting an international perspective." He sited the Foundation's Enoura Observatory overlooking Sagami Bay and designed the buildings and landscapes to take advantage of the site's natural beauty. Ulf Meyer visited the Observatory, which opened in October 2017, and filed this report.

Project: Enoura Observatory, 2017
Location: Odawara, Kanagawa, Japan
Client: Odawara Art Foundation 
Designer: Hiroshi Sugimoto
Architect: New Material Research Laboratory
Contractor: Kajima Corporation 
Site Area: 9,496 m² 
Floor Area: 928 m² 

Cor-ten tunnel and Kakezukuri wood-frame construction (Photo: Ulf Meyer)

While the sea — and views of the sea — are omnipresent in Japan, the shores often are a backside. There is no great beach culture in Japan: people rarely swim, they avoid the sun, and there are no open air-restaurants either. It is unknown when, but a given fact that one day a devastating tsunami will rise from the sea and destroy large parts of the dense ribbon of urbanization along the shores of Japan. Thus, the nation faces away from the sea. One of the most prolific contemporary Japanese artists, however, Hiroshi Sugimoto, has been dealing with the sea through his black-and-white "Seascapes," a great series of monochromatic photographs depicting seas from the Tyrrhenian to the South Pacific, begun in 1980 and developed over two decades as assembled views of the world's seas under foggy skies. These misty seascapes became one of Sugimoto’s signature artworks. A nice sample of these stunning photos are the centerpiece of the Odawara Art Foundation, a new "museum" designed by Sugimoto that is called an "observatory" because it sits atop a hill and allows for great panoramic views over land to the shimmering waters of Sagami Bay, which seem blue one moment and silver another.

Glass stage for Noh performances (Photo: Ulf Meyer)

To get to the citrus grove where Japan’s latest art space rests requires some effort. After traveling a good hour from Tokyo south to Kanagawa Prefecture, the train reaches a tiny railway station called Enoura on the famous Tokaido railway line along the eastern coast of Japan. From the sleepy stop, a tiny shuttle bus brings a set amount of art connoisseurs along steep roads lined with bamboo forests to the Odawara Art Foundation's new observatory on top of the hill. Everybody must have registered a time slot in advance online and can spend no more then two hours on site. That is the deal.

Reception building (Photo: Ulf Meyer)

The art experience begins with a long list of "Dos and Don'ts," read out by the staff in the reception building; this is not uncommon in Japan in general and is seemingly the new norm in Japan's more exciting art spaces. On Naoshima art-lovers are under constant surveillance of a uniformed "art police" as well. The reception building at Enoura contains a single room with a long cedar table and is used for the instruction session on good manners. While such a strict regiment has its merit, it also has its flaws: The group of visitors can’t help but start their journey at the same time and the same place, while some Chinese visitors may still step onto the pebble fields although they have been told not to, because they either do not understand English or Japanese or do not want to understand the strict Japanese etiquette.

Entrance to main gallery from reception building (Photo: Ulf Meyer)

The main gallery in Enoura is a long hallway with art on one side (attached to a volcanic rock wall) and long vistas on all three other sides. It is 100 meters long and sits 100 meters above the sea level. The art gallery juts out from the hillside and cantilevers dramatically at its rear end to provide even more exciting views across the Pacific Ocean.

Hallway in main gallery (Photo: Ulf Meyer)
Cantilevered end of main gallery (Photo: Ulf Meyer)

But really, a visit to the Odawara Art Foundation is not so much about seeing Sugimoto’s photos yet one more time, but about his latest ambition of becoming an architect — and landscape architect. Sugimoto displays a lot of talent in this field: Not only do his buildings have elegant details but also his strong sense of composition helps all ingredients of the observatory — such as an outdoor performance stage and a Japanese tea house — to interact well with their natural surroundings. There also are some trouvallies on the campus such as an Old Naraya Gate from Meigetsu-in Temple in Kamakura. Altogether, the arrangement is a collage-like collection of new buildings and architectural fragments, connected only by great stones that act as walls, steps, sculptures or benches and even as an amphitheatre.

The rock wall of the main gallery (Photo: Ulf Meyer)

The most unique feature is 70-meter long boxy "tunnel" that crosses beneath the gallery at a steep angle, forms an X, and sends daylight from the seaside cliffs to a group of stones in the valley. The rectangular, underground chamber is open at both ends and oriented to frame the sun — the horizon where sky and ocean meet. The rectangular boxes of rust-red Cor-ten steel were welded together on-site, creating a long tube whose apertures frame the scenery around the secluded bluff. It starts underground and exits at a drop, becoming a beam to walk upon. Next to it, a glowing glass stage for Noh performances seems to float on its Kakezukuri wood-frame construction. The cypress scaffolding is joined in the traditional Japanese carpentry style without any nails, screws or glue.

The horizon seen through the Cor-ten tunnel (Photo: Ulf Meyer)
Landscaping next to main gallery (Photo: Ulf Meyer)

Only one year after founding the architecture office New Material Research Laboratory in 2008 with his collaborator, architect Tomoyuki Sakakida, Sugimoto founded the Odawara Art Foundation, which initiated and runs the new art observatory. What summarizes Sugimoto’s former career as a photographer with his new ventures as an "untrained and unlicensed architect" is the "examination of the passing of time." The "art of time travel" no longer requires a camera but a built viewing-tool. Now he is expanding his two-dimensional art into three-dimensional spaces. The Enoura observatory is quickly gaining a reputation as a unique artistic destination in the Hakone mountains that has value as a piece of Land Art.

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