‘I put together my exhibition as if I were making a new park, it's a special concept,’ says Junya Ishigami, who is the first architect to be honoured with a solo show inside the Jean Nouvel-designed foundation. The painstakingly painted maquette of Botanical Farm Garden Art Biotop/Water Garden in Tochigi, Japan, illustrates his point. For this project on a meadow, Ishigami relocated all the trees from an adjacent forest, where a hotel will be built, and rearranged them on the site. Countless ponds, evocative of the meadow's history as a paddy field, have also been integrated, with moss filling in the in-between areas, conjuring a poetic jigsaw of positive-negative space. Meanwhile, for Park Vijversburg in the Netherlands, completed last year together with Studio MAKS, Ishigami traced the existing walking path in order to create three glass-walled corridors that come together in the centre to create a visitors' area.

The angular-faced, slim-framed Ishigami, wearing his signature black hat, is renowned for expressing a poetic vision in projects that either converse with nature or draw inspiration from its forms and elements. Several commissions have been inspired by the shapes of clouds, such as Cloud Arch – a vast, soaring loop to be installed on a pedestrian area of Sydney that will appear different from every viewpoint. But Ishigami isn't a daydreamer, rather someone who thinks deeply when gazing at the world around him in order to grasp meanings that can guide his perspective. ‘Landscape is a kind of structure whereas scenery is a kind of space,’ he philosophises, giving an analogy between landscape/architecture and scenery/space. His ongoing questioning of the relationship between architecture and nature, and how this can be evolved, is evoked throughout the exhibition.

Interior of Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop

The interest in blurring indoor/outdoor space is something that Ishigami shares with, and has inherited from, the older generations of Japanese architects: Toyo Ito and SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa). Just as Sejima worked for Ito before establishing her practice, Ishigami learned his trade at SANAA for four years before setting up his own practice in 2004. At the 12th International Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2010, which Sejima directed and invited him to participate in, Ishigami presented an elliptical installation about ‘architecture as air’. Despite collapsing shortly after it was assembled, the delicate, spindly structure, investigating the limits of materiality and weightlessness, won Ishigami the Golden Lion for the Best Project.

Emerging as one of the most exciting architects of the younger generation, along with Sou Fujimoto, Ishigami first won recognition with the KAIT Workshop at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology. Dispersed between the glass walls, more than 300 thin columns of differing dimensions punctuate the students' workshop, creating spaces for studying or reading, alone or in groups, and for interior plants. A meticulousness lies behind this random-looking arrangement, loosely based on the constellation of trees in a forest. As Ishigami says, ‘Probably the forest has some system that we cannot see or understand. To create a random layout that has a certain system behind it, you have to conceal how you decided to place these columns in this way.’

After making a ‘scenery in the building’, Ishigami now wants to ‘make a sky’. Next to KAIT Workshop, Ishigami has designed University Multipurpose Plaza, an elongated, recreational space whose roof is made from a single steel sheet that expands and contracts depending on the temperature. Its numerous apertures allow light to filter in on sunny days and droplets to descend on rainy days, creating pillars of rain on the bowl-shaped floor. The water from the rooftop, meanwhile, falls from a single opening, cascading into a small waterfall.

This desire to incorporate natural elements such as the weather reoccurs in many of Ishigami's projects. For Chapel of Valley, being constructed in a Christian part of Shandong province, eastern China, Ishigami has conceived two curving, 45m-high concrete walls that follow the contours of the valley. ‘I want to make a more extreme valley type of space inside the building,’ he says. Surging above the ravine, the chapel –whose narrow 1.3m entrance leads to an altar – is devoid of a roof, having only an opening. ‘The sunlight illuminates the bottom of the space, and on a rainy day the raindrops touch the surface on the walls, which aren't straight but distorted, and flow down,’ Ishigami adds.

Model of Home for the Elderly, which features in the exhibition

In Denmark, Ishigami and Svendborg Architect’s forthcoming House of Peace doesn't so much use the sky but evokes it. Commissioned by the Danish non-governmental organisation HOPE, the cloud-shaped building will appear to float on the seawater in Copenhagen's harbour. An underground passageway will lead to a platform where visitors can climb onto small boats to go on a ride on the enclosed seawater, under the cloud silhouette, in between the glass walls. ‘I want to make a sky on the sea,’ Ishigami says. ‘The sea and the sky are the two elements on earth that connect to every continent and everybody around the world, so it's an important concept for world peace.’

House of Peace exemplifies Ishigami’s philosophy of ‘freeing architecture’. As he explains, ‘The glass structure is closed at the beginning of autumn and the water continues to absorb the solar light, so it remains warm during the winter months and heats up the environment. We can truly use a natural phenomenon in order to have a simpler way of life through these kinds of architecture, becoming independent from computer controls, air conditioning and equipment, to fit people's values.’ The role of architecture in the 21st century is about fitting ‘precisely and specifically into each individual and natural environment’, believes Ishigami. ‘Architecture today is not really catching up with the diversity of the different objectives, dreams and values that people have in the world, and can expand from what it is now.’

To fulfil the dreams and values of the owner-chef of a French restaurant in Yamaguchi, Japan, Ishigami has designed House & Restaurant, which is reminiscent of a wine cellar. Employing an inverted fabrication technique, holes were dug into the ground and filled with concrete, and then big lumps were excavated out. Soil is being added onto the cavernous walls so that the rock-like building will feel as if it has always been there. ‘The owner wanted to have an oldness to it,’ Ishigami says. ‘He said a customer would enjoy dining in a space that has this aged feeling and that it would enhance their enjoyment of the meal.’

Plan drawing of House and Restaurant

Ishigami's elastic, out-of-the-box thinking in creating out-of-the-blue ‘sceneries’ sees him jostling all kinds of commissions. His experimental vision has predisposed him to making several projects for children, shifting scales and proportions to a child's perspective. For Cloud Garden, he transformed a floor in a high-rise into a nursery by introducing cloud-shaped concrete elements that children could crawl through and play around. For Kids Park, also in Japan, he designed an indoor playground based on the concept of ‘animals as architecture’: a dog becomes a large roof, a bear becomes a dome, and the open mouth of a hippopotamus becomes a cave. At the Fondation Cartier, the naive, silver-foil maquette expresses the idea of childlike wonder. The most elaborated idea is Forest Kindergarten, in the countryside of Shandong. Underneath a concrete roof, the shapes of its design result from collaging cut-out images of animals, plants and children's illustrations, with a layout that includes indoor classrooms at the scale of an adult, and outdoor spaces only accessible to children or toddlers. Because 80% of the building is ‘half-outside’, Ishigami explains, it is not subject to standard planning conditions, enabling the different scaled activities. ‘Children can find a lot of friends in this space,’ Ishigami says, smiling.

Ishigami has several other projects in the pipeline. Among them is a residential home for the elderly in Tohoku, for which 40 houses slated for demolition have been transported from various parts of Japan in order to create a harmonious ensemble to make the residents feel at ease. Ishigami has also designed eight holiday villas in the mountains of Dali, southwest China, using the boulders to support the large concrete roof spanning the villas, creating a ‘meandering landscape’ as an inside space. In Russia, meanwhile, after winning the 2011 design competition with a concept developed in collaboration with Arup, Ishigami is renovating the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, transforming the basement to create a new, vast entrance space comprising a myriad of columns.

Surprisingly, perhaps, what Ishigami would also like to design is a skyscraper. ‘Most skyscrapers are built by developers with the intention of simply increasing floor space and the architect's main role is come up with a facade and just a few elements,’ Ishigami says. ‘If an architect played a decisive role in the structure's design, he could come up with something that really is architecture.’ If freeing architecture means liberating it from the constraints of developers, Ishigami's notion of architecture as air might see him reinventing how a skyscraper can be in dialogue with the sky.


Interior view of House With Plants
Interior view of House with Plants
Exterior of Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop
Sectional perspective of House of Peace
Model of House and Restaurant
Perspective view of Art Biofarm