Why you should care

Because his airy designs could be coming to a city near you.

Does architecture need to be freed? And, if it does, freed from what? I was a little skeptical both of the title of the new show at Paris’ Fondation Cartier, Freeing Architecture: Junya Ishigami, and of the young and impossibly cool Japanese architect who is its subject. But the skepticism fell gently away as he led me through the works in a torrent of vague, almost childlike descriptions.

Dressed in what looked like a vintage 1970s leather jacket — slightly scuffed, too small and with a big rounded collar — skinny black trousers and Cuban heels, Ishigami is himself an almost ethereal presence, moving weightlessly between exhibits like a marionette. Those qualities are apparent in most of his work too, which seems unfeasibly light; how exactly it stays up isn’t always obvious.

This is the first monographic exhibition on an architect staged by the Fondation Cartier in its 24-year history, and it seems remarkable that such a prestigious show should be devoted to an architect who appears to have built so little. Ishigami, who is 43 (which is, in architectural terms, late infancy), previously worked at SANAA with Kazuyo Sejima and is a little younger than Japan’s other young star, Sou Fujimoto. Both SANAA and Fujimoto appear almost obsessed with lightness, with the creation of a ghostly architecture that denies a building’s most obvious characteristic — weight — and its greatest opponent — gravity.

Ishigami seems to have avoided a serious encounter with gravity so far. In this show, he begins to reveal how he will cope.

Being known mostly for his few exhibition commissions (including the gorgeous greenery of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2008), Ishigami seems to have avoided a serious encounter with gravity so far. In this show, he begins to reveal how he will cope. His approach is to conceive of his architecture not exactly as landscape but as something about landscape. Every one of the projects displayed here deals in some way with the particular conditions of the ground, and the ideas (often extremely simple) are extruded directly from the site.

There is, for instance, a visitor center in a forest (Vijversburg in the Netherlands) in which, rather than chopping down trees, he threaded the building along existing woodland paths, extruding glass tentacles between the trees. There is a chapel in China that sits in a steep-sided ravine and extends its sheer verticality in a tall tower. There is a low-roofed house for his mother that disappears into the ground, and a 1-kilometer-long building (also in China) that is just a single roof, more like a walkway so long and slender that it begins to appear as part of the landscape itself.

If these buildings sit lightly on the land, there are others that instead carve out the earth to create a far weightier atmosphere, an appreciation of the character of the subterranean. The most striking of these are the proposals for a dwelling and restaurant in Yamaguchi, Japan. Holes are dug and filled with concrete. The surrounding earth is then excavated, leaving negative forms that function as columns — a counterintuitive, upside-down architecture. The earth is bonded to the concrete and the result should be a kind of grotto. It is a weird solution but also slightly brilliant, an architecture of sensation and association, of feeling the earth. “If we eat in an old building,” Ishigami tells me, “it has a good atmosphere which we don’t get if we’re in a new office building. I didn’t want to create space as an ornament or to make something that looked like an amusement park.”

Similarly, for the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow (a huge 19th-century building housing the city’s science museum), rather than create an extension as most architects would, Ishigami looked underground. “The building was in very good condition,” he tells me, “but the foundations were … er … turned to dust.” Crumbling? I suggest. “Yes, yes, so we used that condition. We had to rebuild underground anyway and we carved out a bowl around the building.” The extension, then, is a new basement, depicted here as a forest of concrete columns of different sizes and shapes through which exhibitions can be threaded.

There are even odder buildings here. Describing an attenuated roof set in a landscape of pebbles, Ishigami tells me: “This is a very beautiful landscape [Dali in Yunnan province, China] but change is very rapid and it won’t be there for long, so the idea is to preserve the landscape inside.” This is a plan for a series of five huge holiday homes, all on one level and all under one single flat roof pierced with round skylights like a slice of Swiss cheese. The boulders that litter the landscape are preserved inside, holding up the roof so there is no need for extra columns. The topography becomes the structure and is enveloped inside.

The exhibition is dominated by a meandering model of an arch proposed for Sydney, a kind of warped version of the St Louis landmark. “I wanted it to be like a line drawn in the air,” Ishigami explains, “so it looks different from every angle, and someone used to approaching from one street has a completely different picture of it from someone coming from another place.”

There is also model of a kindergarten with shapes derived from cartoonish animals, and a tank of water with a billowing concrete canopy that seems to float on its surface. This is an offshore pavilion near Copenhagen that is accessible only by boat. It looks like a concrete cloud.

My favorite is what looks like a village tightly packed with little houses but which, it transpires, is a residential home for elderly Alzheimer’s patients in Tohoku, Japan. The architect scoured the country looking for homes that were being demolished and brought parts of them to the site to create a collection of rooms that each have a distinct lived-in character, their scale and materials breeding a sense of familiarity that is intended to comfort residents.

Finally, there is a model of Ishigami’s (completed) workshops for the Kanagawa Institute of Technology, an exquisite-looking forest of slender columns around which students congregate to make their own space. It will be counterpointed by an entirely column-free space in which the roof simply drapes across the room, drooping under its own weight like a sheet hung between two walls. The model here is a compelling piece of work that genuinely expresses something about gravity and the tolerance of materials.

Although this exhibition promises much, there is no real way to tell whether the promise can be fulfilled. Ishigami’s statements are vague, perhaps because of his slightly faltering English, perhaps deliberately. When I ask him for a little more detail, he points me toward the Japanese garden and the idea of shakkei, which he translates as “borrowing scenery”; it is the practice of including the surrounding landscape in a garden’s design. “I want architecture to be an extension of the existing nature,” he says.

But the question remains, freeing architecture from what? Ishigami does, I think, suggest an answer in this fascinating exhibition. Freeing it from its history and the burden of its expectations, its weight in every sense. Freeing it, in effect, from itself.

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By Edwin Heathcote

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