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  • Writer's pictureAlex Connolly

Cosmos & Concrete

When you first see a Takasaki Masaharu creation, it conjures many things.

Modernist ideology, Brutalist physicality, a cumulative architectural cocktail of luminaries like Utzon, Tange and Saarinen; all appear to be folded into the work of this under-sung Japanese designer. Born in 1953 in the southern and largely rural prefecture of Kagoshima, Takasaki was inspired from a young age to retain a spiritual connection between construction and the natural world. After graduating from university, he continued to study and work at a number of European firms, developing concepts that sought to fuse European and Asian architectural mindsets to create a Pan-Eurasian design movement.

Returning to Japan in 1982, Takasaki established a selection of design institutes and continued to work on high-concept architectural projects. Each of these undertakings featured his trademark style of bold concrete castings, with sheer angularity contrasting against clean curvature. While Takasaki is known for his more iconic creations, such as the Heaven & Earth House, the Ibusuki Nanohanakan and the People’s House, he also devised shelters in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake.

Amid the crisp rhythm of the Uwaba wind farm sits a striking concrete installation. At any angle, it could be mistaken for a Brutalist cathedral as much a petrified dirigible. At 550 metres above sea level, kept seasonal company by brave campers and occasional picnickers, Takasaki's Kikohu Observatory has kept a lonely, unblinking eye on the sky since its construction in 1995.

Takasaki did design it to become a hub for astronomy enthusiasts, but like many regional places in Japan, it fell victim to an aging population and an unwillingness to accommodate the building’s remote location. In the intervening years, the Kihoku Observatory has become the occasional destination for school groups looking to wander around its small gallery and peer through its telescope at the right hour.

Despite this, the building remains an undeniable condensation of Takasaki’s vision. His trademark crashed-zeppelin motif nesting in a jagged parapet, all atop an explosion of angled pillars; this is arguably his finest creation.

It’s a building that beckons visitors to explore every nook. The foundations and pillars hide a fascinating laneway of poured concrete and gravel channels, best caught after rain. The upper parapet, aside from have spectacular views, accommodates the bulbous hall and hides a tiny amphitheater. Interesting sight lines dominate every corner and drop. It is a spectacular installation, and more is the pity the place remains relatively unknown.

For a design assignment, I had to showcase the observatory, using Brutalist photography touchstones like Ezra Stoller and Simon Phipps. Where Stoller and Phipps diverge is in their architectural depiction. Stoller, by merit of his time, always appeared to capture the future in his compositions, whereas Phipps continues to record the grand tragedy of the post-war period, rehabilitating steel and concrete. Takasaki would have offered both men interesting material in his architecture; Stoller may have been enthralled by Takasaki's elegance, with impact and indifference perhaps being equally appealing to Phipps.

As thematic glue, there was only one choice.

Frederik Pohl’s seminal 1977 science-fiction masterpiece Gateway tells of a derelict transit station left hanging near Venus by a long-gone alien race. Humanity finds it brimming with disused spacecraft and, by scientific will and tenacity, learns to operate these abandoned vehicles. Therein begins a discovery of the cosmos.

With this in mind, utilising the illustrative works of Stoller and Phipps, I aimed to create a sort of gestalt-driven science-fiction

synergy between the stark, mega-structure aesthetic of Brutalism and Takasaki’s astronomical creation. A strange installation, weird and wonderful, offering a window into the universe.

While not a photographer by any stretch, it was a great opportunity to really work for a composition. Just a bloke with an old Canon PowerShot, drizzly weather and the good fortune of living within thirty minutes of this magnificent creation.

Gateway I

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