Issue 5

Freeing architecture

Junya Ishigami

Photos by Aï Barreyre Words by silke Bender

The young Japanese architect, Junya Ishigami, is the industry’s latest wunderkind. Nobody can integrate nature more intimately and directly into buildings than he. His credo: as human beings, we must overcome the separation of indoors from outdoors in order to make the world a better place to live. 

Junya Ishigami

Junya Ishigami builds houses without roofs or walls. He burrows deep into the earth, or designs concrete and metal constructions that rise high into the sky yet still appear light as a cloud. Roofs weighing many tons appear to float without a single support in sight: in fact, he makes architecture invisible. The Freeing Architecture exhibition by the Cartier Foundation in Paris has given this extraordinarily talented Tokyo architect a major platform. It is the first exhibition in the history of the organisation devoted to the work of a single architect. Aged 44 — very young for an architect — Ishigami was given carte blanche to install the ­entire exhibition in the Jean Nouvel-designed glass building.


A great deal of honour, then, and many advance laurels for a young architect who does not as yet have too many completed projects to show for himself. Most of his major projects, which are meticulously recreated in large scale models, drawings, films and renderings in the museum in Paris, are still in their construction phase — such as the renovation of the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow, for which he has designed a brand — new ground floor, or the Cloud Arch in ­Sydney, a monumental 60-metre cloud-shaped steel sculpture, light as a brushstroke, that will soar up ­into the blue sky above the city by the sea. Or the House of Peace in Copenhagen — a cloud-­shaped structure seemingly floating above the Baltic —  beneath whose curved roof visitors will be ­able to board boats to navigate the interior space inviting them to meditate. Then ­there’s the spectacular Chapel of the Valley in a valley in China’s Shandong province, a most extraordinary ecumenical prayer room: 45 metres high and just 1.30 metres wide, narrow as a folded sheet of ­paper, the windowless concrete wall rises up to form its own new canyon in the landscape — roofless, open to the sky and, consequently, to the sun, the wind and the rain — all the elements to which the earth below is subject.


Ishigami quite literally liberates architecture from its constraints, extending its boundaries to encompass land art, poetry, philosophy and utopianism, while at the same time stretching the laws of gravity to their very limits. In 2007 he stunned visitors to the Museum for Contemporary Art in Tokyo by suspending a five-storey-high helium-filled cuboid block, weighing several tons, in the museum’s foyer like a balloon — and equally easy to set in motion with just a tap of a finger. Shortly before that, in his guise as a furniture designer, he had presented a delicate and quite mystifying table at an art gallery in Tokyo: the steel plate was almost ten metres long but only three millimetres thick, yet did not bend under the weight of the crockery.



Architecture’s new wunderkind is currently unrivalled in creating works of such great diversity and has deliberately chosen to eschew the identifying conventions of architecture. Yet he himself is extraordinarily style-conscious. He arrives for the interview, as with every public appearance, looking fashionably dapper. A slim, self-contained man, he wears a hat, jacket and ultra-skinny jeans, usually by Saint Laurent, in effect creating a blend of dandy and rock star and as stylish as if Saint Laurent’s former designer, Hedi Slimane, had personally advised him. 


Born in 1974 in Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo, Junya Ishigami studied architecture at the Tokyo School of Art before commencing his career in 2000 at the renowned SANAA studio under the wing of Pritzker Architecture Prize winners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Just four years later, he established his own studio, junya.ishigami+associates. Among his many noteworthy initial projects was a workshop for the Kanagawa ­Institute of Technology (KAIT), completed in 2008: a seemingly weightless floor-to-ceiling glass construc­tion supported by 308 ultra-slim metal columns of different thicknesses, creating the effect of trees in a forest. The arrangement of the supporting columns appears random, but of course the calculations for ­these static parts are extremely precise to ensure the stability of the overall construction — like a roof supported on a game of pick-up-sticks. Although Ishigami was awarded the Golden Lion Architecture Prize at the Venice Biennale in 2010, his career is only now beginning to gather momentum. 


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