Left Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Enoura Observatory. Right One of many parts of the building that project over Sagami Bay. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence

‘The art and the architecture are inseparable’: Hiroshi Sugimoto and his Enoura Observatory

How photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto designed the Enoura Observatory — an installation that covers an entire hillside two hours south of Tokyo — to align with the annual cycle of the sun while showcasing the creations of his art foundation

Almost any photograph by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto invites a discourse that may cover themes as diverse as metaphysics, cosmology, optics, archaeology, art history, architecture and design, nature, religious beliefs, craft traditions, and authenticity in life and art. A Sugimoto photograph is also about the chemistry of materials — beginning with the silver halides that enact the alchemy of the gelatin silver process.

Sugimoto has delved into these fields of enquiry in many of his works. There are the dense, slippery cultural constructs of his ‘Portraits’ series: lifelike shots of waxworks from Madame Tussaud’s, which are themselves based on portraits ‘from life’. A subset of these depicts Henry VIII and his six wives, the impetuous king’s serial approach to matrimony being, of course, just one strand in the web of allusion spun by these uncanny real/unreal prints.

Sugimoto’s Dioramas, meanwhile, are photographs of those tableaux of habitats and epochs so beloved of natural history museums. And his Seascapes, black-and-white prints of the ocean and sky shot from coastal cliff tops around the world, divide the frame into equal halves of light and dark. They make a kind of yin-yang in which the interlocking curves of the symbol have been reduced to a single straight line — except that the flat horizon is also a view of a curve, the rolling curve of the earth.

Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948), Two selected prints from Time Exposed. Tasman Sea, Ngarupupu, 1990, Marmara Sea, Silivli, 1991, 1989. Two offset lithographs, each mounted on card. Each imagesheet 9½ x 12¼ in (24.1 x 31.1 cm). Estimate $2,000-3,000. Offered in Photographs on 6 April 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948), Two selected prints from Time Exposed. Tasman Sea, Ngarupupu, 1990, Marmara Sea, Silivli, 1991, 1989. Two offset lithographs, each mounted on card. Each image/sheet: 9½ x 12¼ in (24.1 x 31.1 cm). Estimate: $2,000-3,000. Offered in Photographs on 6 April 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Until recently, the only way to tap into the ideas that converge in Sugimoto’s work had been to read up on his many influences. But now, the general public has a chance to walk around inside the many-branched world of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s mind. In October 2017, Sugimoto inaugurated what might be seen as the pinnacle of his art: the Enoura Observatory, an architectural and artistic installation that covers an entire hillside in the Kataura district of Odawara, a couple of hours’ drive south-west of central Tokyo.

‘Enoura is the location of my first memory,’ says Sugimoto, ‘the sea viewed from the window of a moving train. It was the birthplace of my consciousness.’ The train in question was the Shonan express on the Tokaido line. Before the high-speed Shinkansen was inaugurated, this was the main rail route between Tokyo and Osaka.

Travelling north from Atami, you emerge from a long tunnel at the place called Enoura and see Sagami Bay lapping at a grey shingle beach. Above and around are citrus groves dedicated to the cultivation of sweet mikan satsumas. It’s a fleeting glimpse — just 400 metres of track before the train burrows into another hillside. But for Sugimoto it had an effect like an indelible exposure on the photographic emulsion of his young brain.

Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948), Seagram Building–Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, 1997. Gelatin silver print, mounted on card. Image 23 x 18½ in (58.4 x 46.9 cm). Sheet 23¾ x 19⅞ in (60.3 x 50.4 cm). Estimate $20,000-30,000. Offered in Photographs on 6 April 2021 at Christies in New York
Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948), Seagram Building–Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, 1997. Gelatin silver print, mounted on card. Image: 23 x 18½ in (58.4 x 46.9 cm). Sheet: 23¾ x 19⅞ in (60.3 x 50.4 cm). Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Offered in Photographs on 6 April 2021 at Christie's in New York

Sugimoto’s interest in architecture has in recent years rivalled his passion for photography. Though not a trained architect, he has designed several interiors, including the new lobby of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.

Ten years previously, in 2008, Sugimoto founded an architectural practice, the New Material Research Laboratory, and a year later the Odawara Art Foundation, which aims to promote and reconsider Japanese culture through research, exhibitions and theatrical and musical performances. The Enoura Observatory was designed by the New Material Research Laboratory for the Odawara Art Foundation.

The glass-walled gallery. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence
The glass-walled gallery. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence

It stands near the site of the artist’s railway epiphany, and functions as a container for the foundation’s many initiatives. It is also, Sugimoto says, an astronomical instrument designed ‘to observe the movement of the sun, and in doing so, to observe the history of mankind’s understanding of time and the universe’.

Seen from the seaward-facing slope, the observatory’s most prominent feature is a thrusting rectangular cuboid structure in rusting Corten steel. It projects from the hillside like a carriage that has crashed through station buffers. This is one end of the ‘Winter Solstice Observation Tunnel’, a 70-metre-long gallery perfectly aligned with the rising sun on the shortest day of the year.

A well at the centre of the observation chamber. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence
A well at the centre of the observation chamber. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence

It passes underneath another gallery: this one, a 100-metre-long structure in glass and speckled Oya stone, is illuminated by the rays of dawn during the summer solstice. 

Another line drawn across the hillside links a stone stage designed for Noh theatre performances with another stage in optical glass which, from certain angles, seems to float on the surface of the sea below: this is the spring and autumn equinoctial axis.

Wooden beams support an optical-glass stage. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence
Wooden beams support an optical-glass stage. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence

So the Enoura Observatory is a place where one makes connections — like the stargazers of old who traced lines in the skies to describe the constellations, and who saw signs and auguries in planetary conjunctions. Such signs are scattered about the site.

Some are entire structures, like the Uchoten teahouse, a simple wood and wattle hut, in a quiet corner of the complex, designed by Sugimoto in the style of the rustic wabi-cha teahouses of 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu. This hints at the teahouse used by the generals of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Rikyu’s patron, during the siege of the nearby Odawara Castle.

That siege led indirectly to the rise of a sleepy hamlet called Edo, later renamed Tokyo, the capital of a new shogunate. The roof of Sugimoto’s teahouse is made from a piece of rusted corrugated iron that had previously been used as the roof of a local satsuma storage barn.

A restored gate from the Muromachi period. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence
A restored gate from the Muromachi period. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence

‘Uchoten’ means ‘rain-listen-heaven’, referring to the drumming of raindrops on the iron roof — a lament, perhaps, for tea master Rikyu, who committed ritual suicide on his master’s orders just a year after the siege of Odawara. Or this most rustic of sounds might be intended to turn our thoughts to what Sugimoto calls a crucial ‘what if ’ moment in Japanese history — the possibility that, had things turned out differently, Odawara might have become the capital, in which case this bucolic spot with its citrus groves would today be urban sprawl.

Similar weaves of history, nature and poetic allusion are present in every corner of the Enoura site. A 23-ton stone slab that Sugimoto came across near the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant serves as the hashigakari walkway, an allegorical bridge between the spirit and human worlds.

Amphitheatre steps, with a view of the Philippine Sea, descend into the strolling garden. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence
Amphitheatre steps, with a view of the Philippine Sea, descend into the strolling garden. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence

Optical glass is also much in evidence, most obviously as the paving material of that open-air stage. Sugimoto says that he is drawn to this technical glass, used to make photographic lenses and rarely seen in such large blocks, because ‘it must be crystal clear... it is a material of the highest purity’.

Sugimoto’s passion for Japanese antiquities is everywhere to be seen — in the Zen temple gate that now forms one of the entrances to the complex, in the ancient stone bridges that dot the site, in the Kamakura-era cast-iron pagoda that stands on a plinth behind the teahouse, in a simple medieval clay well frame that once belonged to the author Hideo Kobayashi. Such artefacts bear witness to Sugimoto’s desire to ‘preserve these fragments of history and culture’.

Sign up today

Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

The Enoura Observatory provides a rare and thrilling experience. It is an audacious architectural project that is also a contemporary art installation; a contemporary art installation that is also a heritage museum; a heritage museum that is also a prehistoric astronomical clock. 

Asked whether Enoura is art or architecture, Sugimoto replies: ‘It is both — as in a neolithic cave painting, the art and the architecture are inseparable.’

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence
Hiroshi Sugimoto. Photograph by Robbie Lawrence

In one sense, the observatory is the intensely personal project of an insatiably curious artist, the culmination of a lifetime of exploring themes and fascinations. But Sugimoto doesn’t believe that a degree in Sugimoto Studies is required to appreciate the place.