Walk into Junya Ishigami’s new office in the Roppongi neighbourhood of Tokyo, and the first thing you’ll notice between the model-laden desks and workstations is a large, gaping hole in the concrete floor slab. I peer down into the basement: a sea of models from past projects are haphazardly piled in stacks as far as the eye can see. Ishigami’s collaborators (relatively few, considering the office’s prodigious model output) seem to have become so accustomed to the abnormality of a gaping void in the office floor as to no longer notice it, and seem mildly baffled by my surprise. Like all exceptionally true visionaries, Ishigami operates by creating a powerful reality-distortion field, and the hole in the floor is perhaps the least exceptional thing his collaborators must learn to metabolise. Each project is an opportunity to question the basic assumptions of every aspect of architectural practice: from engineering to furniture and from climate control to circulation, Ishigami envisions a condition or an experience, then stretches architecture to the limits of impossibility to realise it. Much as with the James Turrell’s Skyspace installations, in which extraordinary lengths are taken to isolate the simplest of experiences—the act of observing the sky change colour — for Ishigami the experience is the architecture, and the envelope is simply a device that triggers the experience. As a result, there is an utter indifference to the effort required to produce this experience: Ishigami’s architecture runs the spectrum from near-impossible engineering challenges to simple gestures of displacement.
Top photo : In Ishigami’s studio, work progressing on the models of homes for the elderly. The structures vary according to their original geographic location and the technique used by the carpenters who made them. Each has its own characteristics, which are exploited to aid the future inhabitants’ sense of orientation. by junya.ishigami+associates. photo above : Project for a residential centre for the elderly. The study models highlight an exercise in working on variations of traditional housing typologies. Photo by Yasushi Ichikawa
The distinction between three projects currently underway in the office provides a clear demonstration of this contrast. On the same campus of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology where in 2008 Ishigami completed the workshop building (see Domus 913, 2008) that first brought him worldwide recognition for its open plan interrupted only by the slenderest of columns, an even more ambitious endeavour is in the making. Like the partition-free workshop building, it confounds all existing labels for university-building typologies. Ishigami calls it a “cafeteria combined with a semi-outdoor multipurpose space”, and the awkwardness of this rather inelegant description only serves, when one is confronted by the model, to underscore just how extreme the project’s ambition is. On the one hand, the building is the simplest of gestures: a single room, and one with a rather low ceiling at that — 2,3 metres, low enough to be able to raise an arm and brush your hand against it.
photo above : Project for the cafeteria on the campus of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology. The pavilion is developed horizontally on a single floor, with a surface of about 110 x 70 m, and covered by a thin steel roof that floats at a height of approximately 2,3 m. Photo by Yasushi Ichikawa
On the other, it is one of the most phenomenal engineering challenges to have ever faced a university cafeteria, because this room is the size of a football pitch, and not a single column supports the roof throughout the entire span. This roof is a single, thin (nine-millimetre) sheet of tensioned steel, perforated by unsealed rectangular openings that allow light and elements to enter the space, creating a semi-enclosed garden. Above, a thin layer of soil transforms the roof itself into a landscape of grass and vegetation. It is simultaneously megastructural and intimate, effortless as a gesture and bewildering in its scale, and like Ishigami’s previous works it has a deeply human dimension: as the steel roof plate expands and contracts with changes in temperature, the ceiling height varies by as much as 80 centimetres, as though the building were alive and breathing.
photo above : Project for the cafeteria on the campus of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology. Photo by Yasushi Ichikawa
Each unit possesses a distinctive character defined by the building frame’s proportions, which vary depending on the location and time period, as well as the technique of the carpenters who built the house and the way it was inhabited. A unique, recognisable identity is embedded in this wooden skeletal framework and its original roof, but the complex is given a unitary identity by “abstracting” the vernacular architecture through the substitution of the cladding with metal and glass. “The objective,” according to Ishigami, “is to create a new type of hybrid space that could not have been conceived either by contemporary architecture or classical architecture alone.” It’s a deeply empathetic architectural solution that hybridises architecture and urbanism into a space which is new yet culturally familiar to its residents.