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.
WHO IS ISHIGAMI?
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.
Mr. Ishigami, are your constructions utopian, poetic or simply architectural in nature? Junya Ishigami My work reflects my personal values, although the solutions I develop are outside of myself, so to speak. I strive to improve the environment in which they come into being.
How did you come to study architecture? Junya Ishigami To be honest, I have no idea. Nobody in my family is an architect. I opted for this career quite naturally, without any specific reason. In actual fact, my more profound interest only developed quite slowly while I was studying.
It seems that most architects want to shape the world in their own particular style. You appear to want the opposite: are you against label architecture? Junya Ishigami I have no wish to make value judgements on the work of others, but my philosophy is that the environment in which a building stands is more important than the building itself. Personal style is shaped by a particular culture and society, but instead of imposing it on other countries and environments like some kind of universal stencil, we should try and break free from it. Around 80% of my projects are carried out abroad and my aim is to take account of the individual cultures and values of my clients, as well as the environments in which I build. For me, these days there is no more prototype architecture, where one solution fits all. This used to be the idea of modern architecture, and it has led to profound alienation.
What you reject in architecture seems to bother you less where fashion is concerned. You evidently like French designer labels ... Junya Ishigami Fashion and architecture are different, although linked in that they both relate to human beings. However, in both disciplines the concept and the design must relate to the customer, but also transcend the individual. After all, an item of clothing that reflects your personality alone is not necessarily something you could wear on the street. The same applies to architecture: it should not be solely an expression of personal taste. My architecture is a blend of experience and values, which I merge with those of others until I find a balance which feels good and right.
Is there a specific building that has particularly influenced your life? Junya Ishigami The Parthenon in Athens. When I first visited the Acropolis, I was deeply impressed, as most people probably are. Even though little of the building remains and these days it is just a ruin, the space that it defines is still pretty impressive. It was designed precisely for the environment in which it stands and this effect still functions today, thousands of years later. It stands alone, set high on a hill. If it were crammed into the middle of the city between other buildings, it would probably not be half as impressive.
ISHIGAMI’S ARCHITECTURE IN TIME AND SPACE
To try and understand Ishigami’s alternative, freer perspective on architecture, and grasp his exact understanding of the time and space in which a building is set, one simply needs to look at the models of his work in the exhibition. One of his most unusual projects is on the brink of completion: the Noël Restaurant in Yamaguchi, Japan, a kind of artificial cave where Ishigami has applied the principle of bronze casting to the architecture. To do this, he had a crater excavated in the earth, which he filled with concrete. The earth masses all around the crater were then removed by hand. In this way, the space was organically formed and has been created out of the negative space, its roof simultaneously forming the ground level for the surrounding areas. The 194-m2 building is designed as a restaurant and also as the restaurateur’s home. Three interior courtyards separate the living quarters from the restaurant. Skylights in the roof, coupled with exterior walls consisting of glass panels, flood the room space with light to create the effect of a grotto that is almost reminiscent of the Stone Age. Probably the most extreme opposite of modern architecture in every respect and yet there is no shock effect, since the cave lies below ground level and is invisible from the road.