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Balancing act: Junya Ishigami’s shifts in scale

Kanagawa 04 photo finished building

From tabletops to cultural centres, Junya Ishigami’s delicate oneiric world obscures the confines of furniture and architecture 

What makes a table a table? Is it still a table if its top surface wobbles? If the objects resting on it cannot be moved because their repositioning threatens its structural integrity? In 2006, Junya Ishigami’s first built project was the ‘Impossibly Thin Table’, a daring ultra-lean horizontal plane supported by four skeletal legs. When sketched in plan, the outer edges of the pre-stressed metal sheet resemble the walls of a rectangular room, the methodical composition of bread baskets, salad plates and potted plants akin to the careful arrangement of furniture pieces and exotic bibelots in an interior. The structural integrity of this banqueting scene hinges on the exact positioning of individual element: each was carefully weighted and counterweighted and, if too much load is displaced, the 3mm thin tabletop would buckle, and the entire dinner party fall apart.

According to Ishigami, a table is a lot like a building. ‘The top board is like a roof, the legs like columns. You could almost see it as an archetype of architecture. I see in a table not a piece of furniture to be placed in a space, as much as a space in its own right.’ Comparing his wafer-thin tabletop to a drawing made in space when seen from the side, he insists on the fragility of his creation and the precision required to reach a state of perfect equilibrium on a nearly invisible object. The fact that the stability of the table is dependent on the arrangement of smaller, secondary objects reverses the natural order of things. Yet for over a decade, the 44-year-old architect has been challenging preconceptions and overturning established conventions of architecture. He prefers lightness to mass, fragility to gravity, finds inspiration in the shapelessness of a cloud, the weightlessness of a water droplet, the vast randomness of a starry night sky.

Junya ishigami 002

Junya ishigami 002

A model of the Shandong Cultural Centre. Photograph: Luc Boegly

There is a conspicuous resemblance between his original table designs and his most daring building proposals. In the first room of the Freeing Architecture retrospective currently on show at the Parisian Fondation Cartier, a model of the 1km-long Shandong Cultural Centre is effectively a narrow tabletop-like surface resting on a series of skinny legs planted in what would be the artificial lakebed. Varying in width between 5m and 20m, the sinuous promenade subtly rises above the surface like a tidal shoal or sandbank formed naturally by the slow accumulation of sediment, with water penetrating underneath the lateral glass panes. The oneiric atmosphere is reinforced by a series of handwritten observations stuck on the model’s flat roof – ‘are we inside or outside?’, ‘from here I can see all the way to the end of the route’, ‘look mum, my feet are in the water’. 

‘I see in a table not a piece of furniture to be placed in a space as much as a space in its own right’ 

Next to it is a 1:10 model of the Park Groot Vijversburg Visitor Centre (2017), in a historic floral park in the Netherlands, where the existing curved pathway becomes the template for the building’s footprint. Gently sunken into the ground, the concrete base is hidden from view, allowing the roof slab to sit solely on glass partitions. Here, the table legs have disappeared entirely, the architecture appears to float mid-air. Throughout the serpentine promenade, the visitor’s perspective is framed by the horizontal planes of ground and ceiling, with the landscape in between, stretching out to infinity. Out of the 19 projects on display, six have been realised and all the others are under development, an important precision proving the sceptics wrong: no, his work isn’t all unbuilt and unbuildable.

(c) junya.ishigami+associates vyv interior 10

(c) junya.ishigami+associates vyv interior 10

In the Park Groot Vijversburg Visitor Centre, views are framed only by the narrow concrete floor and roof slab. Photograph: Junya Ishigami Associates

Ishigami was propelled almost instantly to international fame following the completion of his very first building, the Kanagawa Institute of Technology, in 2008. Its outer perimeter is demarcated by glass partitions and its interior filled with an artificial forest made of 305 slender columns, each with specific dimensions and a unique orientation. It took two years to determine the size, position and rotation of each column. A series of drawings (presumably only a small selection) is displayed on the exhibition walls, testifying to this immensely rigorous, painstaking process. Rather than creating solid boundaries and divisions, the forest of columns defines loosely zoned spaces of multiple densities for different activities. In this ‘wall-less’ interior, the distinction between furniture and architecture is blurred and eventually lost. Ishigami speaks of ‘making the plan invisible’ and designing randomness, as if placing order and disorder on equal footing.

Ishigami’s distinctive, slightly whimsical representation techniques, which rapidly became his signature, are crucial in conveying architectural atmospheres and concepts. His is an intricate visual language of extremely delicate lines, conscientiously drawn plant leaves and flower petals, hatches made of multiple dots and minute strokes, pen marks overlaid on photographs of bare card cut-outs and frail furniture pieces, flat textures collaged on pastel green and blue backgrounds. What is impressive is that the built reality conveys the ideas even more powerfully than the two-dimensional renderings,  in an age where seductive digital images flatter to deceive with dispiritingly mediocre outcomes in real life. 

Freeingarchitecture high∏gegalanello 2556

Freeingarchitecture high∏gegalanello 2556

Ishigami’s most impressive project to date is the University Multipurpose Plaza where a 12mm-thin steel sheet makes a 100x70m roof, without a single pillar in sight in the interior. Photograph: Giovanni Emilio Galanello

The apparent simplicity and sobriety of Ishigami’s architecture is misleading, concealing its structural complexity and the efforts of the design team, often working in collaboration with structural engineer Jun Sato, to devise particularly innovative solutions. When buildings are not floating, structural systems play the role of interior partitions. In a project for eight holiday homes in Dali, southern China, boulders from the adjacent riverscape support a 300m long reinforced concrete roof. When viewed in photographs of the landscape, their sheer size is not perceptible. It is only when seen confined to the villas’ interiors that their colossal mass is revealed, strangely out of scale in a domestic environment.

New contexts trigger new meanings. The architect moves back and forth between the site and the model, elements are scaled up and back down, the model becomes the site. The 1:1 is redefined, the landscape moves to the interior where, no longer subject to weathering, the passage of time and the processes of erosion, its state is preserved. Architects like to say they blur the boundaries between inside and outside, but few have done it as boldly and literally as Ishigami. 

05 photo finished building

05 photo finished building

Sometimes even actual photographs of his work carry a strange model-like quality,  like in this interior of House with Plants. Photographs: Junya Ishigami Associates 

The lack of concern for scale seems to be what truly frees both his imagination and his architecture. The playful shift in scales is evident throughout the exhibition and the work itself. Photographs of the cuboid House with Plants (2012), complete with wooden furniture and neatly arranged pairs of slippers, resemble a carefully crafted miniature, while the stripped back model of the house’s structure features real life vegetation, set against the backdrop of the Fondation Cartier’s wildflower garden, visible behind Nouvel’s diaphanous glass facade, itself already fusing interior with exterior. Described as ‘a home to several living spaces, in which furniture, plants and architecture constitute the elements of an inner landscape’, this Tokyo dwelling for a young couple seeks to abolish traditional hierarchies, granting living organisms, furniture pieces and architectural tectonics the same degree of importance. Permanence is no longer relevant.

When designing spaces for children, adults are forced to rethink standard measurements. The reinterpretation and misinterpretation of everyday elements, often left unquestioned, suggests new meanings and opens up a world of possibilities. Of his Forest Kindergarten in Shandong, Ishigami writes: ‘Building is playground, building is secret fort, building is attic, building is table, building is tunnel, building is wing, building is slide, building is pool, building is musical instrument, building is building and yet no building.’ Thin pieces of paper gently lift up from the model’s base, as if peeling from the earth’s crust, creating pockets of activities and nooks to hide in. The ability to bend, manifested in the initial tabletops as wobbliness, becomes premeditated and voluntary through gently curved surfaces – yet the gesture itself remains almost minimal. ‘Architecture doesn’t create space. Architecture is merely the beginning’, argues Ishigami, who sees the role of the architect as a ‘tour guide into another world’. Making structures is about discovering those new worlds rather than creating something new, he believes. When we turn what we know on its head, we liberate the power of the imagination.

Freeing Architecture is at Fondation Cartier, Paris, until 9 September 2018