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Innovators interview: Junya Ishigami

This month’s Innovators interview, produced in partnership with Hunter Douglas, features Junya Ishigami

In September 2008 the AR published Junya Ishigami’s Kaito Workshop at Kanagwa; a distinctive 30x30m roof supported on hundreds of slender post-tensioned steel columns. Three years later the young architect returns to build a new building for the university, this time covering an area almost 10 times the size, but with no columns at all. In this Innovators interview, produced in partnership with Hunter Douglas, Ishigami discusses his latest project, a 1 hectare column- free public space.

It’s great that you are able to spend two days with us in London as you come to judge the ar+d Awards for Emerging Architecture. You tell us that you are very busy. What are you rushing back to Tokyo to work on?

We are building a new facility for the university next to the site of the Kaito Workshop at Kanagawa University .

What sort of facilities are going in there?

It’s like a plaza, an external space. It’s next to a baseball pitch, so this area is often bombarded with baseballs, so we need to build a roof to protect the area. So we are making a big roof. Made in steel; very thin steel, only 8mm thick.

So is it like a mesh, to allow light in but to keep the balls out?

No. It’s a vast empty column-free space, 100m by 90m, but the ceiling height is only 2.1m. Very low and very big.

So it just has columns around the perimeter… how many are there?

We are still deciding the number and form of the columns. They will now be more like steel plate shear walls. We are deciding on the porosity of the roof and of the perimeter boundary as we want to make an interior, like a house. In the roof we have an array of 3m square holes, in a random pattern. These are then filled with mesh, to create light wells. What is interesting is that over such a vast span, the height of the space will vary, with fluctuations in load and heat throughout the changing seasons. The profile will change by up to 600mm as the steel expands. Even the columns at the end will need to flex, as they will move too.

What is the finish of the steel? Is anything being used to give the structure greater thermal and dynamic stability?

Yes the whole structure will be covered in 50mm of soil, with grass on top.

But won’t that that add too much load?

No. It will protect the steel, and adds to its thermal capacity. If it was not there the steel would heat up too much and expand too far, resulting in a failure of the columns.

Has this extra 50mm enabled you to hide any ribs to give additional stiffness to the roof plate?

No there are no ribs. The 8mm steel is achieving the 100 and 90 metre two way spans.

So can you describe your attitude to risk, and how you and your engineer convince clients to pursue such apparently impossible feats of architectural innovation. This structure must be right on the edge of collapse?

We have collaborated with the structural engineer, which is normal. What is less normal is that we also work with the construction company. It is fairly unusual to get the builder on board so early. This particular contractor has a experimentation room, where they can test all sorts of scenarios, with wind and temperature variations. So we can test things out

When does construction take place?

Next March we will start, and it will take a year to build.

Will they build it on the ground and lift it up?

No, we will build it on a temporary platform that will be removed when the perimeter columns are in place.

Looking back at previous projects, such as the table at Art Basel and the Kaito Workshop - have you always been interested in this moment of tension, when something switches from being possible or impossible?

Yes. I want to find the limits of architecture, and to understand how to go even further beyond those limits.

And do you see projects as an ongoing series of experiments, or is each work complete in itself?

Every project is pure, being complete in itself. But the philosophy is the thread. So in this project, the thread is the structural tension, but the unique ambition relates to my desire to make a mega-structure. Typically mega structures are for machines like a factory with no human scale. Here I wanted to make a human scale mega structure, which is why the ceiling height is so low in relation to vast of the plan. It has the vertical scale of a house, but the horizontal scale of an open field.

So can you imagine what it will feel like to be in such a vast and low and highly compressed space? It seems analogous to an idea of landscape, while being like no landscape I can imagine. Will it make you feel uncomfortable, and if so, is that you want people to experience?
I always want to make scenery. Space is scenery, and in this project the scene I want to replicate is similar to the scale of the space that sits between the earth and the clouds, which is also vast and relative low. This is the proportion of space that this building will replicate, where people will get a sense of a new internal horizon. The ground beneath the roof will also be shaped to form undulations, at some point allowing people to touch the belly of the roof where the space between reduces to just 700mm.

Having worked for Kazuyo Sejima, do you recognise any parallels between this building and SANAA’s Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne?

No, I don’t think there is any relationship.

Not even in terms of breaking conventional attitudes to space and scale, with floors that rise to points of compression? Is there not something revealed in these structures about how Japanese architects are able to re-imagine attitudes to space?

It is normal in mega structures for the roof profile to change along its length, so I am not really doing anything new or particularly Japanese. What is unique, however, is the relationship between the structure’s large scale deflection and the person within the space.

But why is it that we are constantly impressed by the level of inventiveness that comes from young Japanese architects? There must be something in this that relates to the Japanese collective consciousness? How are such fertile ideas realised? In the UK, I fear that too many people would just say, ‘No. that’s impossible’.

Don’t get me wrong it is difficult in Japan to convince a construction company and a structural engineer to say that this is possible. But perhaps in Japan the context is less precious. We are also working in Paris, in an historic context, and it is even more difficult there to push beyond the boundaries.

But they built the Pompidou Centre…

Yes, but in Japan the regulations are very strict. In Paris things are more ambiguous and nuanced, more based on feelings or taste. In Japan it is more abstract and as a result we can push against these very clear constraints and regulations to produce radical new solutions. This has less to do with taste and feeling, and is based on pushing against measurable limits.

So you prefer the constraints of specific codes that you can experiment with and push against? And on that point, is this new public shelter even considered to be building under Japanese codes? Or is it a folly?

In this case few codes applied, so even more than normal we had to show that we had done the experiments and proven our own challenges. So as long as we prove it can be built, we get the necessary licences and permissions.

Do you think the university were expecting such a radical approach, or were they expecting something more prosaic in their need for a new covered external space?

They wanted somewhere for the students to relax, as there was very little landscape for them to enjoy. So we are creating two parallel landscapes, one on the ground and another on the roof, with the apertures in the roof, bringing light and life to the landscape beneath.
We have been experimenting with the soil on the roof, which is very special. It will sit on irrigation pipes set in concentric rings. Effectively the steel will be permanently wet, so we need to ensure the soil will be sticky enough not to slide of the roof, or slump.

So what if it rains?

We have predicted that the roof will deflect to form two low points where we will be able to collect the run off.
And it will withstand snow load too? This all seems impossible is there a hidden structural trick?

There is no trick. It will work. Come back in two years time and see.

Thanks to Yuki Sumner for her simultaneous translation during this interview.


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