Hiroshi Sambuichi: The nature of architecture

by

Special To The Japan Times

What is most remarkable about Hiroshi Sambuichi’s work is the sensation of air and wind movement that the shapes of the architect’s buildings encourage. The experience is testament to Sambuichi’s philosophy that architecture should work in harmony with the environment surrounding it so that it becomes a natural part of the Earth.

It’s perhaps not surprising to learn, then, that when Sambuichi graduated from Tokyo University of Science he chose to move back to his hometown of Hiroshima, a city not known to be particularly favorable to aspiring architects. But it was from there that he was able to develop an unusual sense of aesthetics and architectural philosophy. Through commissions in less metropolitan areas — Miyajima, Hiroshima, Inujima, Naoshima, Rokko and others in the Seto Inland Sea region — he became familiar with the topographical and climatic features of provincial landscapes, producing buildings rooted in the local natural environment.

For each commission, he says, he spends up to two or three years thoroughly researching the terrain, climate and history of the site, before even deciding on the architectural form that he feels would be most suitable. He explains that his primary concern is to utilize existing natural resources, something he calls “moving” architectural materials, which he believes not only helps minimize the environmental impact of his work, but also ensures that it will withstand the test of time.

As a result, Sambuichi has received some of the most prestigious architectural awards in Japan, including the 2011 Architectural Institute of Japan Prize for the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum. Formerly a copper refinery on the island of Inujima, this ecological museum with natural ventilation transformed the factory’s ruins into a monument that not only respects the island’s industrial history but also celebrates its environment.

This spring saw the first major retrospective of Sambuichi’s work at Toto Gallery Ma, which was held in conjunction with the publication of his first book, “Hiroshi Sambuichi — Architecture of the Inland Sea.” From the viewing platform of his Hiroshima Orizuru Tower, Sambuichi talked to The Japan Times about the new publication, which traces his work process through five representative projects, including the Miyajima Misen Observatory and his latest work in Hiroshima.

Your book starts with your work in Miyajima, a world heritage site, famous for its floating Itsukushima Shrine. It seems that the shrine had an enormous impact on your architecture.

To me, architecture is ideal when you look at its form and the moving materials around the site, such as the wind, water and sun, become visible. Itsukushima Shrine embodies this ideal most eloquently. The tides of the Seto Inland Sea regularly alter the water level by approximately three meters about every six hours. This up-and-down movement of the sea level is visible and appealing to the eyes because of the horizontal line of the external corridors of the shrine.

The beauty of this shrine has much to do with the moon, too. It also tells how our ancestors feared and worshipped nature and allied themselves with its force rather than (try to) control it.

You designed the Miyajima Misen Observatory on the top of Mount Misen in Miyajima in 2013, and the view from your building is recognized in the Michelin Green Guide Japan. What were your own thoughts of Mount Misen?

I was brought up in Hiroshima, so ever since my childhood, I’ve climbed Mount Misen, which is 535 meters high, every New Year’s Eve to see the first sunrise of the year from its peak, where I sit close to iwakura, the seat of sprits. From there, I can perceive all the relationships between the mountain and the surrounding moving materials. I want visitors to sit (in the observatory) and to feel the energyscape that is woven throughout Mount Misen and the Seto region — the wind, water, sun, moon and terrain. It reminds you what really matters in this world.

We are now in the viewing platform of the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower, which overlooks the Atomic Bomb Dome, with a view of the Peace Memorial Park and Miyajima in the southwest. Even here, in the middle of the city, we can feel the strength of wind.

During daytime, the wind blows from Miyajima. In summer, the wind in Hiroshima is constantly replacing the air, with its direction changing from north to south every 12 hours.

In Hiroshima, from the mountains to the delta and the Seto Inland Sea, the water and air is constantly replaced, which makes this a city that breathes. We renovated this building, which is about 50 meters tall, by removing its outer walls and leaving only the structural frame, so that the maximum velocity of the wind could be drawn in.

The mound of the hill and the eaves which we created on the rooftop also constrict and strengthen the wind. The intention was to enhance that feeling of Hiroshima as breathing city.

Your office is also located close to Peace Memorial Park. What does Hiroshima and its history mean to you?

It is said that trees and plants would not grow in Hiroshima for 70 years after that day (of the atomic bomb). This is a city that has since achieved an unprecedented revival. I think that is because Hiroshima is a town that breathes. There are moving materials in everyone’s hometowns. I want to draw attention to the importance of things like wind, water, sun, moon and terrain, and have people take these ideas home with them.

In “Hiroshi Sambuichi — Architecture of the Inland Sea” it is mentioned that Honmura on the island of Naoshima was already shaped by nature. Can you tell us more about that and its influence on your Naoshima Hall?

I spent more than 2½ years researching Honmura village and I learned that (each house) had wind passages (for natural ventilation) created by its north-south alignment, something that applied to the whole village.

This is a manifestation of the skilful use of the powers of nature that had been mastered by villagers. The plan of Honmura village seems like a letter, passing on wisdom from ancestors to the next generations. I would like my architecture to be this kind of letter.

“Hiroshi Sambuichi — Architecture of the Inland Sea” is published by Toto Publishing in English and Japanese. For more details, visit bit.ly/totosambuichi.