Japan’s most imaginative architect comes to Paris

Credit: Luc Boegly

Eight years ago, at a minor design show in Belgium, I came across a series of wobbly-looking white wire chairs and tiny tables dressed in cream mohair sweaters, hats and boots. They could have been terrible. But in the hands of their Japanese creator – Junya Ishigami – they were the most exquisite and ethereal things you’d ever seen. The installation, if I remember correctly, was called Picnic.

Then Ishigami himself arrived, looking like a Japanese architect as designed by Hedi Slimane around, say, 2004: super slender, skinny black Rock 'n' Roll clothing, fabulously scraggly black hair. I was charmed, all over again.

Ishigami is a master of imagination; he simply refuses to operate according to the standard rules of architecture and design. At Venice, also in 2010, he created the outline of a building in single strands of white carbon fibre. (It collapsed the day after the opening – someone said a cat had played with it in the night.) In London, in the Barbican Curve, he made an installation of carbon columns that it was almost impossible to see at all.

Credit: Giovanni Emilio Galanello

The exhibition of his work at the Cartier Foundation in Paris is no less full of willful ideas, or charm, or references to childhood. (Along with nature, the way children experience the world is one of his touchstones.) But amazingly, some of these projects are being, or have been, built.

There is a long, three-pronged walkway, for example, which meanders through a beautiful park in the Netherlands, completed last year, which manages not to interrupt any of the natural existing landscape. Resting entirely on structural glass walls, with no pillars, it is dematerialised the moment you step into it.

Credit: Luc Boegly

There is the House of Plants, built in east Japan in 2012 for a young married couple, that is little more than panels hung on a steel frame – a scintilla more minimal and it wouldn’t be a house at all. Part of the floor is made of soil, and plants grow there as part of the “furniture” of the interior.

A home for those suffering from dementia, gathers together 40 old houses in different vernacular styles from all over Japan. Ishigami is reassembling them according to the standard size of tatami matting sections, and hopes that the elderly people who live there will derive some peace from the sort-of familiarity of this re-arranged architecture.

Credit: Jean-Baptiste Le Mercier

Besides all this are projects that suggest building around boulders on rural sites, rather than removing them; huge models made of aluminum foil animals that gradually mutate into a children’s school; and suggestions for constructions that, to Ishigami’s way of thinking, are really clouds.

Architecture shows are rarely the biggest hits of the exhibition calendar, but on the day I visited this one was packed. Sheer word of mouth had created a substantial queue outside the wonderful Jean Nouvel building in which it is being held. (I noticed one visitor who was particularly beguiled – ITV’s Robert Peston.) Junya Ishigami likes to talk about freeing architecture, and this is one show that will, at least temporarily, free your mind.

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