Ethereal Construction

Junya Ishigami (b. 1974) turns fairytales into reality. Amongst the most experimental young Japanese architects, this conjurer of sorts has dreamt up structures as thin as air and as light as clouds, including a huge cuboid metal balloon that floats and random patterns modelled after trees in a forest. It’s the kind of ingenuity that defies physics – forgetting what we have been told is impossible. For the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion, he has created a gently sloping slate canopy that seems to emerge organically out of Kensington Gardens.

Slender steel columns randomly arranged effortlessly hold up 61 tonnes of Cumbrian slate tiles that shelter a cave-like triangular seating space underneath. A steel mesh supports the mass of stone, imbuing it with a weightless quality so that from the outside it could very well mimic a bird in flight. The structure takes its inspiration from slate roofs that can be found across the world, using ancient techniques to form a domestic space that is universal in its appeal and materials. The tiles are irregularly shaped and scattered to appear less artificial. Together, they form a unique scenery that both blends into the surroundings and punctuates them.

Built in 1934 as a tearoom, the classical-style Serpentine Gallery peers out from behind the slate curve in the same way that a mountain or forest in the distance provides the background in Japanese gardens following the principle of “shakkei,” or borrowed scenery. When it rains, the water cascades off the tiles like a small waterfall. The tips of the design seemingly reach down to touch the concrete flooring, which itself reaches up towards them so that the roof appears to be billowing. The minimalist tables and chairs in the space underneath were conceived to resemble lily pads in yet another reflection of Ishigami’s “free space” approach, seeking harmony between man-made structures and natural ones.

However, sometimes dreams face compromises when confronted with reality. Polycarbonate barriers and extra columns were installed that restrict movement in a space initially envisioned as open and encouraging movement after Aecom engineers warned of an excessive wind risk. It did not help that Ishigami was afforded very little time to build the temporary commission, his first in the UK. The overall design and concept is impressive but these modifications leave visitors hungering for what could have been.

At just 45, Ishigami has produced a number of innovative and thought-provoking projects that move seamlessly between glass, water and concrete, blending the organic and the manmade through ethereal construction. His 2008 Venice Biennale Pavilion was designed without air-control systems or doors to make the boundary between nature and architecture indistinguishable. In 2014, Ishigami won the proposal for Copenhagen’s House of Peace, with a 3,000 square metre cloud-like structure on the Nordhavn harbour.

Olivia Hampton.

Until 6 October. Find out more here.

Lead image: Serpentine Pavilion, 2019. Designed by Junya Ishigami, Serpentine Gallery, London (21 June – 6 October 2019). © Junya Ishigami + Associates. Image © 2019 Iwan Baan.