The work of Tokyo-based architect Junya Ishigami is difficult to describe. At once minimalist in their formal expression and structure, his projects are also environments full of activity, nature, and, dare we say, poetry. On his second trip to California, Ishigami spoke at the Monterey Design Conference and at UCLA. Guy Horton caught up with the Japanese architect to discuss the space, transparency, and other architectural atmospheres that are so challenging to put into words.
Guy Horton: Talking about architecture often seems inadequate; words always fall short. How can we talk about your architecture in a meaningful way and get close to it? How do you describe it or do you let others do the describing?
Junya Ishigami: I don’t want to make architectural spaces. I want to try to make new environments. Normally the inside space of a building is kind of uniform, but I want to make new environments not just for humans, but also for plants and nature.
I’ve read that you often draw inspiration from nature. Nature in what sense and why is this important?
I’m not just inspired from nature, but I want to make another nature. Nature is a human construct. Nature is not just nature because humans influence nature and nature influences humans. I ask myself: How to make a new kind of nature? How to mix existing nature and new type of nature?
What is important about the transparency in your work? I often see this word used to describe your projects, but it really seems to relate to your Japan Pavilion for the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale and the Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop. But not all of your work is about transparency. When is it important to be transparent and when does that get triggered for you?
Space itself is transparent. I’m interested in making space itself. Materials themselves aren’t important but space itself is important.
Was that the idea behind Kanagawa?
Yes. Space itself. Atmosphere is important.
You use as little as possible structure in your work. Just enough to get the job done. Are you about not doing things unless they have a real reason, like no curves for the sake of curves? Or do you allow playfulness to coexist with efficiency?
How do you make a lot of variation? One hundred years ago architects could propose just one idea to make a whole city. But in this era we have a lot of variance for each person. Everybody used to have same dream, this era has many dreams, so we have to make many types of buildings and space. I want to make variation within my own work.
So people can’t look at your work and say “Oh, that’s an Ishigawa building.”
I hope it will always be different.
Architecture needs more variation. For example, skyscrapers, big buildings, we have many types of buildings and came make many types of space. Architects can do a lot of aesthetic designs. We can propose different types of space within buildings, not just how they look. Architecture needs more comfort and we can design more for this.
Is there a difference between the way Japanese critics and western critics talk to you about your work? Do they ask different questions? Do the western critics always ask you about nature and transparency?
Japanese culture is very different from the U.S. or Europe. The Japanese way of thinking doesn’t have any specific structure. There is a kind of structure to western cities, but Japanese cities don’t have any specific structures. [They are about] how to fit the shape of the land, but without any specific strategy for the city. Shape is not that important. How to fit the context is important.
Could Kanagawa exist in a different setting, a different city? Would it fly at Harvard, say? Or did that design emerge from its context?
I think so. It’s based on the site.
What do you think of the controversy over the Zaha Hadid stadium? What’s your take on that situation?
The whole situation is not good. My point is that they should have continued with the project. The reason for cancelling was the budget and she could have adjusted for that. But the problem was used by politicians, I think. It became very political. Abe used this to make a political point. He wanted to exert some control.
You didn’t have a problem with the look or scale?
No. The design resulted from the program. The government didn’t have a clear program so they kept adding things to it and that is why it became big and over-budget. Once the government decided they wanted Zaha Hadid they should have continued with her. It was unfair.
How important is it to do something new or experimental in architecture? Is this over-emphasized? Should architects always strive to be different or experimental? How important is this in Japan?
Yes. This is important because human activities are always changing—we need to fit buildings to new activities, the activities of this era—so we should adjust buildings to new human activity.
I read that writing is part of your process? Is this true on all projects and does the writing help to generate the design? Here at MDC we heard Rand Elliott talk about how poetry informs his work. Does writing help you think about design?
Writing includes space so it helps me imagine the space. Writing itself includes space. Novelists have scenery; I can make new space by writing about it.