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Engineering and tradition
A foray into the office of Junya Ishigami in Tokyo reveals new aspects of his design philosophy, intent on creating architectural experiences poised between engineering challenges and simple gestures
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.
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.
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.
Commissioned to design a home for elderly patients suffering from dementia, Ishigami again side-stepped the conventional route towards building-making. The brief specified the need for an architectural environment that the residents would easily be able to recognise, facilitating the process of identifying their own residence through the unique characteristics of each space. The proposed strategy employs a technique known in Japanese as Hikiya, or moving a house from one location to another without disassembling its structure: in place of a single building, the centre is composed of a multitude of wooden houses collected from villages throughout Japan. In fact, it’s very much like a small village compressed onto the site of a single building: the individual elements fit neatly into one architectural structure thanks to the tatami mat grid that governs most traditional Japanese domestic architecture.
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.
Much of Ishigami’s work is permeated by this deep empathy for the humdrum exercise of living everyday life. In a suburb of Tokyo (“a landscape comprised of a repetition of nothing but ready-built houses that continue endlessly”), the office recently completed a residence for a young couple that injects a microcosm of nature into the deeply artificial environment of the city. One could describe it as an exercise in the act of not creating an architectural image: unlike most other examples of recent domestic architecture in Japan, the exterior is understated to the point of anonymity, almost perfectly camouflaged into its mundane and rather harsh urban surroundings. On the interior, however, the act of making architecture is subsumed by the desire to create a landscape — a point that is driven home clearly by the exposed soil in the corner of the living room, from which a small forest of trees springs into the double-height space. Looking out onto the street, one realises that the interior space of this residence somehow feels more like an outdoor space than the regular, strictly aligned cityscape outside.
What sets Ishigami apart from others of his generation is the simplicity of the gestures through which his architecture is produced, irrespective of the complexity required to execute them. His architecture is uncompromising but deeply human, driven by the desire to transform simple gestures of everyday life into architectural experiences, and to turn the everyday into something bewildering but beautiful. Perhaps the hole in the floor of his office is a quiet reminder of how threatening architecture can be, and how easy it is to be swallowed by it. Joseph Grima (@joseph_grima)