When I was 7 years old, my family visited the Hiroshima Peace Park. I don’t remember much from that day—only that the mood was quite somber and I could sense my parents’ concern. For them, as American transplants, to appear at the site of the most notorious, devastating nuclear disaster authorized by our country a mere three decades afterward must have required some bravery. But we had moved to the city of Hiroshima in 1977, and a visit to the Peace Park was unavoidable. Standing in the shadow of the Genbaku Dome, a building intentionally left in ruin from the atomic bomb’s destruction, I recall my father expressing that we could never fully comprehend the horrors of that event.
In the immediate aftermath of the bomb, Manhattan Project physician Harold Jacobsen stated that it would take 70 years for trees and plants to grow again in Hiroshima. Yet life returned to the city in much less time, and cherry blossoms bloomed the following spring. My memory of Hiroshima in the late '70s was that of a lush, green city—albeit one still overcoming the indelible scars of 1945. I have had the chance to return to Hiroshima several times since, and the city seems more prosperous to me each visit.
According to Hiroshi Sambuichi, a Japanese architect who spent his childhood in Hiroshima and the surrounding islands in the Seto Inland Sea, the city has rebounded successfully due to its advantageous physical setting and climate. “Originally Hiroshima was just like Miyajima, a place with an affluent culture," he said in an interview with the Louisiana Channel, referencing the nearby island. "And the wind, water, and sun were moving very beautifully in this town.” Situated in a fertile delta consisting of seven rivers and a continuously shifting tide, the city benefits from strong sea breezes and fresh water that descends from the mountains to the north. “The way clean water and air are recirculated is the reason why Hiroshima became such a beautiful city again,” he said.
For Sambuichi, water, wind, and sun are the fundamental ingredients of architecture. He calls them ugoku sozai, or “moving materials,” a term that simultaneously imparts tangibility to these elements while acknowledging their transience. For the observatory atop the Orizuru Tower, a 14-story building he renovated that sits adjacent to the Hiroshima Peace Park, Sambuichi created a generous open-air room under the roof. Called “Hiroshima Hill,” the observation deck consists of an elevated wooden platform that slopes downward on three sides toward the building perimeter. Meanwhile, the overhead roof structure—which is made of Japanese cypress and cedar, traditional shrine- and temple-building materials—inclines gently upwards in the opposite direction of the floor. A frameless glass guardrail and barely visible mesh netting wrap the exterior, imparting a quality of complete openness.
The shaded open-air space becomes, in effect, a large wind- and light-funnel, constantly pulling in gentle breezes rather than the intermittent gusts that would occur if the observatory were glazed or roofless. The angled floor and ceiling greatly increase views of the surroundings, which include the adjacent Genbaku Dome and its previously ravaged context, as well as the city skyline and surrounding mountains.
For Sambuichi, harnessing the materials of a site enables visitors to receive a profound message. In another interview with the Louisiana Channel, he spoke of his Orizuru Tower client, Tetsuya Matsuda: “His wish to make the world a place with no atomic bombs is very deeply felt. And I really agree with him. That’s why we decided to do the renovation together.” He added, “This horrible thing happened in Hiroshima…. I thought of the power of nature to take care of the landscape. I wanted to make a place which communicates this message.”
Sambuichi also designed an observatory at the top of Mt. Misen, a 1,755 foot–tall sacred mountain on Miyajima, a favorite place from my childhood. Known as the “Island of Gods” and considered one of the top scenic spots in Japan, Miyajima is home to the vermilion-painted Itsukushima shrine that extends dramatically over the water. Its Great Torii gate, standing alone in the Inland Sea, is one of the most photographed landmarks in Japan.
Covered by old-growth forest, Mt. Misen is the tallest mountain on the island. Visitors can access it via ropeway or one of several hiking routes, which average about 2 miles long. The ropeway stations stop around 1,150 feet above sea level, so reaching the peak requires an additional 600-foot climb. “I was brought up in Hiroshima, so ever since my childhood, I’ve climbed Mount Misen 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 spirits,” Sambuichi said in a Japan Times interview. “From there, I can perceive all the relationships between the mountain and the surrounding moving materials.”
Sambuichi's observatory is a simple three-story wood and steel structure with an open terrace at mid-level and an open viewing platform at the top. The second-floor terrace includes ample seating for weary hikers to take a rest. “I chose za as the theme,” Sambuichi said in the Louisiana Channel interview, “Simply put, za means to sit down. But for a Japanese person the word za means more than that. It means to find peace in your heart and see.”
The design encourages visitors to pause—even meditate. Noticing that viewers at many observation sites remain in motion, the architect wanted people to sit and focus on the surroundings. “When you stop moving, you can feel the moving materials,” he said. “[Y]ou see the moving things much better when you stop moving. If you sit down and watch the Seto Inland Sea, it will be so beautiful.”
Sambuichi has designed several other memorable sites around Seto and beyond, including the Rokko Observatory, the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, and Naoshima Hall. In every case, the architect has attuned himself to each site in an extraordinary way. Sambuichi spends an entire year studying a project’s environment before designing, he has said, so he can fully understand the full spectrum of seasonal changes. His deferential approach toward design and his focus on moving materials offer lessons for architects who pay more attention to a building than its context. His work also exemplifies the positive sense of recovery and rebirth one finds in Hiroshima and its surrounding islands today.
For Sambuichi, architecture should not call attention to itself; instead, it should bring occupants into closer union with their environment.