Rokkō Shidare Observatory
Sambuichi Architects

April 03, 2013 /

Kobe, Japan

Exterior view. Photo: arcspace

By Jakob Harry Hybel 

The Rokkō Shidare Observatory in Kobe, Japan, is an unusual observatory. It is perched on the top of Mount Rokkō almost a thousand yards above sea level, but here, rather than to observe the surrounding landscape, visitors are meant to witness nature and its shifting states.

From a distance, the building is surprisingly unassuming, as you would expect a hilltop observatory to be more of a landmark. It almost seems to be an extension of the hill on top of which it stands. But once you enter the building, you cannot help but feel astonished by the generosity of the design.

This sensory observatory is designed by Hiroshima-based Sambuichi Architects, established in 1997 by Hiroshi Sambuichi. According to himself, Sambuichi finds his primary sources of inspiration in the intricate workings of the earth and its elements - specifically the "moving materials," such as air, wind and water.

Water and life are in a remarkably sophisticated relationship that is mediated by the sun. If architecture exists to serve our needs, then water should influence architecture's form and appearance./ Hiroshi Sambuichi

Observatory deck and thermal chimney. Photo: arcspace

The different states of water
The overall concept of the Rokkō Shidare Observatory revolves around water, which is the element that fascinates Sambuichi the most, because of its inherent state-shifting abilities.

Sambuichi's projects are generally very site-specific (he spends years on climatic and topological surveys), and Rokkō Shidare is no exception. The climate on Mount Rokkō, is characterized by harsh, windy winters, which results in a local phenomenon: large amounts of white rime collects like spikes on bushes and tree branches.

Outer frame. Photo: arcspace

The distinguishing outer frame of the building that looks like a perforated dome is composed of an intricate structure of wooden sticks within hexagonal frames. The frames are designed to attract frost in winter in the same way as the surrounding vegetation does.

Depending on the time of year of your visit, the terraced reservoirs, which is the first thing you meet as you ascend towards the building, will be either empty or filled with either water or ice.

The water collected here in the summer and autumn months will freeze in the winter. The ice will then be cut into small blocks and transported into the core of the building, where it is placed in small airtight compartments under the seats of a bench. Here it will stay throughout the summer, cooling the hot air, whilst slowly melting and dripping into small pools carved in the stone floor. Finally, it will evaporate back into the atmosphere, closing the circuit.

Pool carved in the stone floor of the building's core, the wind room. Photo: arcspace

Back to nature
In all of his projects (and this one in particular), Sambuichi has made sustainability his main focus, but with a headstrong lo-fi approach. He is one of the few contemporary architects, who sees sustainability as a precondition for architecture instead of an obstacle. At the same time, he applies a certain "Less is more"-logic that is rarely seen in this particular field of architecture, with exceptionally simple and remarkably effective results.

Most often, Sambuichi is boxed in with a new generation of Japanese architects, who have grown tired of the technologically dominated architecture of today and who seek to (re)discover the confluence between architecture and nature.

This categorization makes sense to a certain degree, but unlike many of his contemporaries (Sou Fujimoto, Junya Ishigami to name a few), Sambuichi seeks to draw inspiration - not just conceptually - but directly from nature. He sees architecture as "details of the earth", and you find this way of thinking clearly materialized in Rokkō Shidare.

The poetry of the project lies in the interrelation between the circularity in the architecture and the circularity of the natural processes you find yourself there to observe.

Observatory deck and thermal chimney. Photo: arcspace

Ventilation shaft. Photo: arcspace

Spiralling entrance. Photo: arcspace

Interior view of the wind room. Photo: arcspace

Interior view of the wind room. Photo: arcspace

Bench containing ice containers. Photo: arcspace

Facts about Rokkō Shidare Observatory


Hiroshi Sambuichi

Structural Engineers:

Arup Associates



Photographs by:

Jakob Harry Hybel

Watch the magazine Japan Architect's video featuring the frost-covered Rokkō Shidare below.


Last updated: September 22, 2014

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