One of an occasional series of reports on the work of Living World, by Keiichiro Fujisaki

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Born 1963. Design journalist. Contributes articles on topics such as design and architecture to numerous magazines. blog

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Economics of Earth Clock

Earth Clock Report Part 3: Airport President

by Keiichiro Fujisaki, design journalist

“There’s someone I want you to meet. The President of Kobe Airport Terminal, Shoji Morii. It was meeting him that inspired me to do a project at Kobe Airport.”

I was on the verge of leaving after covering the opening of Kobe Airport, but after hearing these words from Yoshiaki Nishimura, I decided to pay a visit to Morii’s office. Unfortunately he was out, so I was unable to pay my respects, but Nishimura insisted I interview him at a later date.

Underneath, I was thinking how it’s usually impossible to use comments from clients, how they tend to sound propagandizing or stray from the point, doubts that seemed to be substantiated by some of the comments on the Kobe Airport Terminal website, such as the one referring to Earth Clock as “one of the symbols of Kobe Airport whose theme is LOHAS.”

But apologies are in order. Morii had some truly interesting points to make. Which just goes to prove one should never make judgments based on preconceived notions.

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The departure lobby several months before opening. Earth Clock construction work is just on schedule.

An airport is a kind of stage

Morii was originally a banker. He went from being Manager of Sumitomo Trust and Banking’s Kyoto branch to President of Kobe Airport Terminal.

I expected him to have lived in a world with no connection whatsoever to art or design, but in fact this wasn’t the case. Twenty years ago, in 1986, he was appointed General Manager of the Planning and General Affairs Division of STB Research Institute Co., Ltd. “It was right when the bubble economy was at its peak. It was a time when banks were making huge profits and actively contributing to society, and so we started this think tank with the idea of conducting research that would be beneficial to society. The research included work on the topic of cities, and so I had the opportunity to meet and talk with scholars and people involved in culture and the arts.”

One of the people who created the strongest impression was playwright and critic Masakazu Yamazaki, whose book on consumption culture, Yawarakai kojinshugi no tanjo (The birth of gentle individualism), was the focus of a lot of interest at the time. “Yamazaki often used to say, ‘the city is a stage.’ That had quite an influence on me. During the construction of Kobe Airport, I was always conscious of the fact that an airport is a kind of stage. And that we are responsible for producing a scene that unfolds on that stage.”

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Architect Akira Kuryu and Kobe Airport President Shoji Morii. It all started with their meeting.

The Kobe Airport passenger terminal was designed by Azusa Sekkei Co., Ltd. The design office has built up a formidable track record in airport design in recent years, having been involved in designing the Central Japan International Airport and the New Kitakyushu Airport, for example. In addition, Akira Kuryu Architect & Associates, headed by Akira Kuryu, provided design support for the project by as architectural supervisors. The rooftop garden, Sky Court atrium, and monotone interior color scheme were all Kuryu’s suggestions.

I wanted something that could only be found at Kobe Airport

Kuryu’s office was also where Morii and Nishimura met for the first time.

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From the original sketches: A proposal for installing a giant 3m LED screen beside the departure information display board

The initial idea for Earth Clock involved an LED display, but as this would have been too expensive, it was decided to project the images using a projector instead. Even this ended up costing 45 million yen.

“The fact that it was going to cost a lot of money was a taboo subject. This was because Kobe City had very little money to spare. Nishimura suggested incorporating video pushing Kobe as a brand, and gathering together sponsors by offering to include corporate logos in the clock, and it was agreed that if this was the case we would give it a go.”

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From the original sketches: Memo with various details including the timing for switching from the time clock to the earth clock.

Morii had already talked about the Earth Clock idea to executives at one or two companies, and obtained a positive response to the extent that they thought the idea was interesting. The feeling was that the project was feasible. “The bottom line was that I wanted something that could only be found at Kobe Airport. A decision on whether we’d go ahead with Earth Clock or not wasn’t made until the very last minute, and construction work was already at a fairly advanced stage when I made the final decision to definitely go through with the project and arranged for work to start on preparing the wall to receive the circular screen. Of course, by that time, even if we’d given up we’d have been five million yen out of pocket. In any event, I was prepared for the worst.”

In the end, ten sponsors came together. “If we didn’t get enough sponsors together, we were considering covering any shortfall out of our own advertising budget. Kobe Airport doesn’t advertise at all on television or in newspapers. This is because our policy is to spend all our advertising budget on the building. Our advertising budget is 50 million yen. Out of this we paid for the planting around the passenger boarding bridges and the concourse. It would have been a hassle spending all that money on Earth Clock, but if push came to shove we were prepared to find the money to pay for it out of the advertising budget.”

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Images are projected onto the screen, which is tilted forward at a 12-degree angle

Public art subject to depreciation?

Earth Clock is an asset that depreciates over time. “We’ll have recovered the costs after five years. In other words, we’ve budgeted for it to depreciate over a five-year period. So we’ve asked the sponsors to stick with us for those five years.” Assets such as buildings and equipment are regarded as loosing their value over time, and so are subject to depreciation. However, artworks and other things categorized as so-called “objects of art and curios” are not subject to depreciation. This is because a painting by Picasso, for example, does not lose its value over time; rather, it increases in value.

In other words, for accounting purposes, Earth Clock is not art. Adds Morii, “Of course, Living World holds the design rights, and it can lodge a patent application. Depreciation is purely an accounting matter, and the work has a value that cannot be registered in the accounts. Earth Clock’s value will not disappear in five years.”

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Memo showing calculations verifying functions relating to the rotation speed of the Earth / Takahiro Shinkai (GK Tech)

Hmm, hearing this made me think this could be the basis for a new kind of relationship between corporations and the art world. This is not art on the same level as reproductions purchased as furnishings for purely decorative purposes. It’s public art subject to depreciation but whose original value will not disappear.

In a similar way, it’s difficult to ascertain whether the work Living World does is art or design, media art or information design. Morii explains this clearly from the perspective of a financial professional. “In five years time, a projector might be available that has a clearer picture, and money will need to be spent on updating the content. Let’s say the cost of this is 30 million yen. Well, that, too, will be subject to depreciation over a number of years.”

So perhaps the advantage of art subject to depreciation is that it can be updated. Things like CPU speeds and visual technology are continuing to advance rapidly. With any artwork that uses computer technology, the ideal thing would be to be in a position to update it to the latest technology at any time. Not only as far as the system is concerned, but also the economic environment.

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Designer Senya Nemoto adjusts the movement of the clock parts on the eve of the airport’s opening

What to place at the center of this stage we call an airport. During the bubble economy, we probably would have spent money like water and littered the place with sculptures or murals by famous artists.

But in circumstances where severe cost reduction was a priority, a different solution was found. Art that’s media, that’s updatable, and that’s subject to depreciation.

Whether Earth Clock is art or design is still unclear. It’s a clock, an advertising tower, and a background visual. It’s a facility, a piece of software, and an artwork that makes us ponder such things as our sense of oneness with the Earth and time. So yes, it’s a new direction for public art in a new age.
(Keiichiro Fujisaki)

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