Warm Atmosphere

Junya Ishigami interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

Best known for buildings that are abstract, if not ethereal, Junya Ishigami has taken a different direction with the design of a facility for patients afflicted with dementia. While his projects often have elements of reduced proportions that are made of contemporary materials whose properties are pushed to their structural extreme, he has collected parts of old traditional houses from all over Japan and recombined them into a group assisted living residence in Akita Prefecture that will be completed next year. Ishigami discusses this original and nuanced arrangement of warm interiors.


Jeffrey Inaba: What were the most important reasons for deciding to adopt old buildings? And how do you see this project in relation to your body of work so far?

Junya Ishigami: From the beginning, the client was not interested in the typical nursing care facility for dementia patients because they wanted to avoid having a hospital feel. They wanted a completely different concept for a group home. The client had researched examples outside of Japan and liked one in which each room had its own entrance, like a ‘house’. Leading up to each house, there was a ‘street’ for circulation. It was important for them to create an environment where patients could recognize their own place by virtue of the approach and entry to their room.  In response to their request, I did various studies to see how I could approach the project in a contemporary way. I thought that attaching a generic entrance onto a modern building would make the whole thing appear fake.  The example the client described was in Europe: it had a stepped entry porch with a mailbox attached to the side and a wooden door to enter. I concluded that these elements wouldn’t work well with contemporary architecture, and thought it can’t be built without reconsidering the language of contemporary architecture. Thus, the design was arrived at by an idea not about form or history, but in response to this particular demand by the client.

JI: Your cultural and institutional projects are striking for how little mass there appears to be.  Their nearly invisible quality is paradoxically what gives them such a presence. A sense of scale is often established by very slender structural components and large areas of glazing that draw light into the space. In contrast, it seems you have tried to develop a more domestic, enclosed feel through the repetition of traditionally proportioned elements and by limiting the amount of light through the use of the existing roofs. Can you discuss your interest in these qualities?

IJ: The group home is a nursing care facility but it essentially is a residential house. I can’t imagine an elderly dementia patient being cozy and having a happy life in a hospital-like setting. As I started to the think about the warm atmosphere of a residential house, I did not want the building to just have the appearance of being warm. Rather I wanted this warmth to be based on a principle about the architecture. This residential feeling comes from homes that already exist in the world that were not designed by me. I wanted to produce a new environment through their assembly.

JI: People with dementia lose ability to orient themselves and to reliably navigate even once familiar spaces. Given this unfortunate but real fact, what do you hope patients will experience living in the building?

IJ: One of the requirements was there were to be distinctions among rooms so that patients would recognize their varying identities and appreciate the variety in the interior as a whole. We selected existing homes from all over Japan that were planned to be demolished and relocated them to the site. We wanted to connect these homes together respecting the regional characteristics and existing conditions. Hopefully, the patients will appreciate these slight differences.

JI: Structure is a central part of your work. Often it is used to organize the space and program. Is that the case with this project?

IJ: I thought that the existing wooden frame structures were beautiful. I just removed their finishes and aligned the columns of each frame. All of the various structures are tied together to create a single structural system that has a fixed, abstract feel to it. At the same time, since each house is built by different carpenters in distinct styles and proportions, they have unique qualities and will age differently. Many of the other elements in the interior are movable, so the spaces of everyday living can be arranged in several ways. For example, during the summer doors can be opened so the interior feels expansive.  That way, patients can have the liberty to wander but still be protected.


Translated by Masao Kodama and Wataru Shinji