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

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

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Natural time, artificial time

Earth Clock Report Part 1: Living World

by Keiichiro Fujisaki, design journalist

There’s something about clocks that, even if they’re brand new, gives a sense the moment one decides where they’re going to be placed that they’ve been there from long ago. I’m not talking about the fact that clocks easily blend into any environment. I’m interested in looking at “time” through clocks. There’s neither a beginning nor an end to the flow of time, and what clocks show us is a continuous series of fragments of this endless flow of time. These fragments take various forms depending on the clock’s mechanism.

On the day Kobe Airport opened on February 16, 2006, I went to look at Earth Clock. As they entered the first floor arrival lobby, each passenger arriving in Kobe was greeted by a group of young women and handed a commemorative item. Nearby, a fire brigade brass band was playing Dancing Queen.

Kobe Air Terminal, Japan’s first municipal airport.

I made my way to the second floor departure lobby where Earth Clock is located. Being the opening day, the airport was crowded not only with passengers, but also with sightseers and media. In one corner of the lobby, a broadcaster had set up a makeshift studio and was broadcasting live from the scene. What does the future hold for the country’s first municipal airport, a project completed after much debate at a total cost of 314 billion yen? Will it be able to compete with Itami and Kansai airports? How does it compare to taking the shinkansen? It’s a new sightseeing spot with magnificent night views of Kobe from across the sea. For the mass media, the airport certainly offered an array of newsworthy topics.


Photographed February 2006

Earth Clock casually ticked away, seemingly aloof from all these arguments. A rendition of the Earth is projected onto a circular screen measuring 2.5 meters in diameter, a full rotation being completed every 50 seconds. Each time a rotation is completed over Kobe, the projection switches to a CG image of a standard analog clock face. The second hand of the analog clock points straight up, signaling that a minute has passed. Over a 60-minute interval, 59 such minute time signals are displayed along with a single hour time signal.

There are 60 different designs for the analog clock CG (or to be precise, 20 designs, each in three color variations). After 10 seconds, the time signal screen disappears and is replaced by the earth projection, signaling the beginning of another 50-second rotation of the Earth.


Hiroki Suzuki (Akira Kuryu Architect & Associates) came up with the idea of making the elevator shaft resemble a clock tower

The terminator (the line dividing night from day) is projected onto the Earth in real time.

Of course, the footage of the Earth is not a live feed, but a visualization based on a calculation of where the line would be at any given moment. As the Earth Clock globe slowly rotates, visitors can tell at a glance which cities around the world are welcoming the first rays of sunshine, and which countries are being enveloped in the darkness of nightfall. The times in the various cities over which the terminator passes are shown digitally in small figures.

In the morning, the birds all begin to sing in unison

The passage of time is different from country to country and region to region. Different cities may be in the same time zone, but as the clock strikes seven in the morning, some may already be experiencing bright daylight, while in others the sun may not even have risen. Earth Clock affords a sweeping view of these various times around the globe. Yoshiaki Nishimura of Living World explains:


From Tougaku Co., Ltd.’s PDF data

“Despite the fact that it’s as broad as the U.S. (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) when measured from east to west, China employs the same standard time throughout the country. The time difference between India and Japan is 3 hours 30 minutes, but the time difference between here and Nepal is 3 hours 15 minutes. Time differences of 15 or 30 minutes are used by certain countries to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, so in a sense they can be referred to as time borders. So among other things, time is a political tool.”

Indeed. I remember hearing stories about how at the western extremity of China the Sun would be directly overhead at three in the afternoon. The terminator marches on regardless of things like manmade national borders and standard time zones. Says Nishimura, “I had in mind the question, What would time be like without the influence of time in industrialized societies?” So Earth Clock was born out of a recognition of the contrast between artificial time and natural time.

“In the morning, the birds all begin to sing in unison as the terminator passes. On the opposite side of the globe, the sunset side, dogs start barking and crows return to their nests. Although in the cities, which increasingly operate around the clock, we live according to artificially designated time with little regard for whether it is day or night, the world at large is overwhelmingly governed by natural time. The terminator turns relentlessly like a music box. Frogs start to croak and birds start to sing. I find this kind of thing fascinating, and I’d always wanted to express this somehow in my work.”

Or rather, a form of media in its own right

There’s probably no other space so strictly governed by artificial time as an airport. Both passengers and airline employees are required to operate according to strict time schedules regardless of whether it’s day or night. Symbolic of this artificial time are the FIDS (flight information display system) boards that show the operational status of various flights, but Earth Clock highlights another kind of time as it looks down aloofly from on high on the FIDS above the departure gate and the passengers controlled by it.

Strangely, the Earth Clock globe seems to protrude from its base, giving it a slightly three-dimensional appearance. This is probably due to the effects of the terminator, which describes an arc and therefore gives the clock an impression of solidity. Another possible cause is the fact that the circular screen is tilted so that those below can see it more clearly. Or perhaps because in our subconscious we know the Earth is spherical, our brains automatically give three-dimensional form to any image of the Earth. Whatever the cause, the designers are adamant that the effect is not intentional, but an illusion born out of sheer coincidence.

The images are projected from a projector in front of and below the screen. Consideration was given to installing a circular liquid crystal display, but this idea was abandoned because it was going to be too expensive. Rear projection, in which the image is projected from behind the screen, produces a clearer image than frontal projection, but because the screen is fixed to an elevator shaft wall, the necessary equipment couldn’t be imbedded behind the screen. In order to obtain as clear an image as possible, two 10,000-lumen projectors are used, carefully adjusted so that the image from one precisely overlaps the other.


The clock was designed by Senya Nemoto

Images of clock faces showing time signals are interspersed between the Earth images “because people would tend to dismiss images of the terminator marching across the face of the Earth alone as purely decorative, and so they were needed to ensure people recognized it as a clock.” But there was another important reason. In an effort to cover the roughly 4.5 million yen production costs, sponsors were asked to contribute money in return for having their name displayed on the clock face.

The number of sponsor companies currently stands at ten. Starting in May 2006, 30-second commercials produced by these sponsor companies have been screened on a rotational basis during the hour time signals. It’s firmly established itself as an advertising medium. Or rather, Earth Clock is now a form of media in its own right.
From art, to a clock, to an advertisement, Earth Clock continually changes its form like a phantom. In other words, not only was it conceived as a media art device to encourage people to consider the passage of time on a global scale, but it was also designed as an economically self-supporting form of media.
(Keiichiro Fujisaki)

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