The fundamental intention underlying Jun Ishigami’s strangely uplifting architectural projects can be stated simply. Ishigami strives to free architecture from the terrestrial scale—that, is from its age-long bondage to gravity. He is exploring an architecture of zero gravity. Yet what sets him apart from most of his fellow architects is that weightlessness, in his case, is not achieved by resorting to literal means, such as inflatable, super-light or evanescent structures—although he does use them often—, but through a formal or structural investigation into the very foundations of architectural thinking—an investigation that is nevertheless entirely pragmatic in outlook, since it relies on constructive and empirical methods rather than on theoretical discourse.
Ishigami’s thinking is at once speculative and intuitive. Many of his ideas are steered by natural similes or paradigms: light, rain and clouds, the forest, the horizon… But then what does “nature” mean here? Ishigami’s answer is straightforward, and the book published in 2010, Another scale for architecture, made it quite clear: what nature achieves is the coexistence of a multiplicity of heterogeneous scales of reality, from the realm of the infinitely small at the quantum level to the seemingly unlimited expanses of the vast universe.
Thus, the task of architecture is to insinuate itself within nature, emulating its capacity to weave together a plurality of scales. There is no choice but to start where we stand—that is, from our macroscopic, human-centred perspective. Yet from there, the architect can make his way to new levels of reality that really are new scales. I quote: “Expanding the concept of architecture may enable us to bring within it a greater number of scales. Even if we do not alter its range, we can still perhaps bring as many scales as possible into architecture by making things of all kinds as small as possible. Or else, if architecture itself can be made small and low density or thin and expansive, we may be able to locate it in the intervals between diverse things.” (Another scale for architecture, p. 5).
This statement is remarkable in its concision and precision. It points unequivocally to the two directions which Ishigami has been persistently pursuing these past ten years or so. On one level, it is a matter of experimenting upon ever more fine and subtle scales, by putting to use slender and frail material, while probing new virtualities through the ceaseless production of delicate small-scale models, drawings and assemblages offered for meditation or manipulation. But on another level, and more importantly perhaps, this constant navigation and interplay between, on the one hand, the new boundaries of lightness and smallness projected by the architectural imagination, and, on the other hand, their handcrafted counterparts devised in the studio space, progressively reveals something even more intriguing. By swiftly crossing the intervals between the different levels at which the architectural imagination operates, scales that may have seemed heterogeneous turn out to be almost indistinguishable. What is gained from the circulation between various scales and stages of production is an oblique perspective, something like an intuitive shortcut, calling for a general recalibration.
Naturally, we shouldn’t be too specific about “small” here. In fact, the most immediate benefit of this approach is that “small” and “big” can easily exchange their places along the “S, M, L, XL” spectrum: what is important is not the relative magnitudes, but the trajectory that enables us to connect them, and sometimes to work on both levels at once. This raises the issue to a new formal level, besides the literal—quantitative, metrical—understanding of scale and scaling. “Smallness” or “lightness” do not have much to do with relative magnitudes anymore; they refer instead to qualitative aspects of the situation that suggest a potential for transformation. “Small,” or “thin,” are ways of saying that the things that matter unfold at a more subtle level, in the ambiguous interstice between two scales, or two formal dimensions—for instance, the vanishing difference between vertical and horizontal, the shifting boundaries between inside and outside space, between connection and disconnection, etc. These dimensions, as we shall see, need not be measured against an absolute earthbound reference frame in order to make architectural sense. In fact, they require that we refrain from doing so: that is where the transgression or blurring of scales connects with the antigravitational theme.
To repeat, “small” in this context is above all a qualitative designation: it has absolute meaning and can very correspond to an order of magnitude that we would consider as “big” in normal circumstances. As we shall see, even a high-rise tower is “small” when viewed from the proper perspective. In that regard, genuine atmospheric architecture—“transparent and intricate like an airflow,” Ishigami writes (Another scale…, p. 9)—, can always be considered as a nano-architecture of sorts: a nano-architecture of a more abstract variety, capable of crossing thresholds of transparency or zero density quite independently from the high-tech feats of miniaturization illustrated by recent advances in bio-engineering and architectural design. The architect may deal effectively with dimensions invisible to the naked escape eye, even if he only reaches them by an imaginative leap, or through hand-drawn diagrams. What he is after is a relation of quasi-identity between structure and space: he is not interested in installing forms into space, or in partitioning a pre-given space, but in inventing new ways of connecting hitherto segregated spatial dimensions.
Marcel Duchamp developed a similar intuition in his own time, in a different context altogether. With admirable precision, he spoke of the “inframince” (infrathin) quality of certain artistic projects, unfolding somewhere between 2D or 3D, or more interestingly between 3D and 4D. The mathematical model for such interstitial (i.e., non integral, fractionary) dimensions is known today as “fractals”. Naturally, it is not entirely coincidental that the cloud should play a privileged role in Ishigami’s poetics of architecture: besides its immediate suggestion of weightlessness, its capacity to infiltrate other media and install an immersive of its own, this wonderfully delicate product of nature exhibits a typically fractal structure. Mathematicians would say that it is “scale invariant,” but what this means in actual experience is quite clear: whether you are immerged in it or looking at it from afar, it is very difficult to get a sense of how “big” a cloud is. “Clouds have their own boundaries, which give them form. Close up these boundaries become blurred, losing their meaning as borders, only presenting clear contours when viewed from a certain distance. Is it possible to design a building using this approach to boundaries, changing according to scale?” (Another scale…, p. 29). A cloud is not only the model of a non-centred, borderless, porous and almost fluid space, freed from the usual boundaries and coordinates. It is more fundamentally indifferent to matters of scale. Or more accurately, it is capable of reforming itself at every scale, without being bound to any in particular. As a result, we may venture that in cloud-like space, the spectator’s gaze is freed from the familiar dimensional grounding, with the attached sense of distance and depth. One does not circulate from one point to another as in ordinary (Euclidean) metrical space, but from one plane or threshold to another, as between different scales.
Ishigami’s fascination with such natural patterns makes perfect sense in view of his general project, which is precisely driven by the idea of “moving freely between different scales” (Another scale…, p. 145). In light of this formal understanding of weightlessness—not so much disorientation, as scale-invariance, or scale-indifference as one may say—, the claim encapsulated in the exhibit’s title, “freeing architecture,” begins to take on a more precise meaning. What is at stake is no less than the traditional attachment of architectural imagination to a certain scaling and calibration of visual and kinaesthetic space, which is itself an expression of the overall framing effected by gravity.
A most obvious manifestation of this basic situation is found in the privileged role of the vertical axis in architectural design. To achieve a genuinely aerial or atmospheric architecture, many architects have entertained the dream of free-floating structures hovering above the ground. On a formal level, the interest in parallel perspective, starting with van Doesburg’s axonometric “counter-constructions,” served a similar purpose : it was meant to convey the sense of an open-ended, poly-focal, “floating” space. Ishigami is not very fond of axonometric representation, as far as I can tell. And when he experimented with inflatables, he seemed to be more interested in the shifting expanse laying between the gigantic helium-filled parallelepiped and the surrounding atrium-like gallery space, than with the floating itself. Gently moving around, the aluminium-foiled volume cuts out space more than it occupies it, tracing innumerable virtual volumes in its erratic course. Again, when Ishigami tackled the issue of verticality head-on by designing skyscrapers, his idea was not to overcome gravity by literally raising buildings to considerable heights. His concern was with the perceptual and structural shift induced by such a new scale. His challenge was to push to its limits, and finally to subvert, the gravitational logic that forces us to build high structures on “stupendously large plans” in order to ensure their stability (Another scale…, p. 135). “If buildings were to reach higher and higher, rising further and further from the ground, eventually the concept of height would morph to one of distance” (Another scale…, p. 172). That is a rather startling claim, but it is entirely consistent with the architect’s conception of scales. The point is not to touch the sky or entertain the Icarian fantasy of cities in the air by reaching unimaginable heights: it is rather to get rid of the privilege attached to verticality itself. By realizing that an extra-thin skyscraper can be viewed as an infinitely long stretch, strictly equivalent in that regard to a horizontal expanse, the gravitational axis is collapsed with the other dimensions of space. The difference becomes irrelevant. What is going on here is a thorough relativisation of space, not unlike the overview/underview perspective suggested by the image of an astronaut floating underneath the surface of the Earth.
Owing to this subtle dialectics, architecture becomes its own landscape: not a piece of nature arranged and framed according to certain standards of taste, but a “second nature” that manages to lay its own horizon line and deploy its own atmosphere within the surrounding nature. This may require a good deal of excavating, digging, unearthing, transplanting and repotting. It may involve carving out holes in the ground, pouring concrete, moulding and demoulding, to finally give shape to negative space. The insertion of glass walls in this artificial cave reinforces the impression that one is floating beneath ground level. The architectural performance may seem very earthy and even telluric at first glance—and in any case far from “immaterial”—, but in its own way it really achieves an “orbital” interpretation of traditional troglodyte dwellings, trading on the same kind of figure/ground ambiguities that we mentioned earlier. In Moscow, it is the entire structure of an old building that appears to be elevated above ground by the mere fact of digging out its perimeter and turning the basement into a new ground level.
Alternately, one may turn the surface of the water into a moving floor, while recreating an artificial climate adapted to the dimensions of a cloud-like pavilion directly mounted on the sea. As Ishigami writes in the superb exhibition catalogue (or artist’s book, as it is) accompanying the display of his recent projects at the Cartier Foundation: “The idea is to create a new outside, inside the structure” (Freeing Architecture, p. 198). In a different context, the architectural performance will consist in shifting the horizon line entirely, as the 45m-high walls of a narrow corridor leading to the heart of an open-air chapel seem to cut out a thin ridge of blue sky far above the visitor’s head. In this artificial canyon erected in the middle of a natural valley, light enters from far above, radiating as it is from the high depths of the structure. In yet another recent project, transparent screens on both sides of a serpentine corridor will delineate an interior promenade amidst surrounding trees. The landscape is not exactly framed: what is offered is rather something like a long cinematic tracking shot, with interesting twists awaiting the wandering spectator. Ishigami describes it nicely: “In some sections, the transparent screens enveloping the space overlap to form a single sheet. The interior space is absorbed into a single pane of glass, and disappears into the forest. Becoming, as it vanishes, architecture.” (Freeing Architecture, p. 65).
There is no better way to say it. Architecture, as understood here, is not a generic designation for the art of designing and constructing buildings that will stand by themselves, rising from the ground, defying the pull of gravity. Architecture takes on its full meaning when certain familiar dimensions of space begin to vanish, and the entire scenery accordingly acquires a fluid and buoyant quality. Architecture becomes visible at the point where these dimensions merge or are somehow turned inside out, eclipsing the conventional arrangements of blocks and walls, partitions and boundaries, that we have come to take for granted. In that state, it recovers something of the unpredictable power of the natural phenomena from which Ishigami draws his inspiration.
The challenge is not merely to “open up” architectural space. That story has been told a thousand times since Le Corbusier invented the “free plan,” getting rid of load-bearing walls and the customary partitioning into rooms, and Mies van der Rohe attempted to overcome the grid in favour of an abstract homogeneous field. But the accomplishments of architectural modernism were almost entirely dependent upon a comprehension of space devised by generations of earth-dwellers and land surveyors. The point is that the free plan still leaves us very much on a ground-like surface, with the horizon line virtually in sight. Despite the intensive use of concrete pilotis, roof gardens and free-standing curtain walls, and for all the fascination exerted by aeronautics, the scenery remains governed through and through by gravitational principles. These extend to matters of mass composition and equilibrium, as well as to the structuring of space according to up and down, vertical and horizontal. By and large, our reptilian brains still abide by these categories. What Ishigami has achieved with incomparable elegance, through a gentle but determined work of poetic defamiliarization, is to make us realize that architecture can be viewed as an inhabited landscape of its own making—a landscape virtually as vast and as varied as nature itself, extending far beyond the confines of our earthbound perspective.