Junya Ishigami Digs Deep

Ulf Meyer
8. March 2021
Photo courtesy of junya.ishigami+associates

Architect Junya Ishigami's design for Restaurant Noel in Yamaguchi, at the western end of Japan’s main island of Honshu, is a series of cave-like spaces seemingly carved into the earth. Construction photos of the project hint at the special qualities that will be on display when the restaurant opens to the public this summer.

Louis Kahn is the great architectural master who invented the “subtractive approach” to modern architecture. His intricate way of cutting away at a mass — albeit an imaginary one — turned space into a negative, the result of subtraction. Peter Zumthor followed in his footsteps, using a bundle of tree trunks as an internal formwork for the Bruder Klaus Chapel: the concrete walls envelop the space where the burnt pines stood before. 

Photo courtesy of junya.ishigami+associates

Junya Ishigami, Japan’s latest architectural wunderkind, is taking subtraction one dramatic step further. His design for Restaurant Noel in Yamaguchi was realized by digging holes in the ground, filling them with concrete, and burrowing out the soil in between. The client, a chef specializing in French cuisine, foresaw a “cave-like space” — that is exactly what he got!

Photo courtesy of junya.ishigami+associates

The soon-to-open restaurant resembles a labyrinth tunneled by giant worms, or a large, archaic wine cellar. It is a testament to Ishigami’s bandwidth of skills. Previously he stunned the architectural world with the elegant, impossibly thin design for the workshop building at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology (KAIT) in Atsugi, southwest of Tokyo. His original ultralight building was recently complemented by a semi-outdoor plaza that is neither soto (outside) nor uchi (inside).

Photo courtesy of junya.ishigami+associates

At Noel, the archaic gesture is the result of a complex process, as mentioned above. After excavating and filling the holes with concrete to create the tapered columns, the ground at grade was removed to make room for the roof. The original idea was to smooth the concrete columns, but Ishigami liked the earthy surfaces caused by soil sticking to the poured concrete, so he kept them as-is to accentuate the restaurant’s rock-like ambience. Sedimentation and erosion can be studied when looking at the bare cones. The “inverted landscape,” as Ishigami calls his latest invention, blurs the line between built architecture and natural cave.

Photo courtesy of junya.ishigami+associates

Ishigami is one of the most experimental of Japan’s younger generation of architects. The Art Biotop Water Garden, an artificial green space in the foothills of the Nasu mountains in Tochigi Prefecture, straddles the boundaries between architecture, landscape, and art in new ways. For the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park, he managed to lift an undulating slate roof above the surrounding lawn on columns as thin as needles. In hindsight the Serpentine Pavilion seems to hint at the design for the Noel Restaurant with its cavernous space, but it was still clearly architectural. Ishigami’s design for the Noel is impressive in that it creates a new typology of subtracted “earth-tecture.” It is another indication of what is to come from Japan’s design prodigy. 

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