This pavilion by Ryue Nishizawa, on a forested mountainside above Kyoto, is a collaboration with design office nendo, who designed the mushroom-like clusters of stools sitting in its shade, positioned to enjoy the view. On a visit, Jef Smith finds an appropriately light-touch partnership in a structure perfectly matched to its site.
Collaborations between celebrated, high-profile designers, such as this small pavilion by architect Ryue Nishizawa and design office nendo, are always an intriguing prospect – even if such collaborations have occasionally been known to result in dull work or unresolvable “creative differences” – OMA’s and Herzog de Meuron’s ill-fated Astor Place Hotel design in Manhattan for Ian Schrager being a case in point.
The pavilion has been constructed at the University of Art and Design on the edge of a vibrant, mainly residential neighbourhood in north-east Kyoto. It is sited high up towards the back of the richly forested campus, one which enjoys an ideal relationship to the city: simultaneously feeling above and separate on the steep slopes of the rising mountainside, but immediately connected to it below.
On the route up and through the campus you pass under and alongside the architecture school by Kengo Kuma, which uses the level changes to great effect, and enjoys commanding views over Kyoto and the surrounding mountains. This visceral perception of the whole city is reminiscent of Barcelona, Edinburgh or San Francisco, in contrast to the multi-layered, cerebral puzzle of Tokyo or London.
After taking a contour-hugging road through a mountain forest with intermediate clearings, an abrupt turn brings you in sight of the new pavilion, first revealing itself by the end of a timber canopy wrapping over the base of a pre-existing stone staircase, which then leads up to a plateau between diagonally-coursed retaining walls and newly planted Japanese plum trees.
nendo’s PR and the subsequent design press coverage has made much of the concept of fungi-like “mushroom” stools, with Nishizawa’s canopy evoking a walk in the mountains under thick tree cover. These metaphorical associations can be over-stated, but the transformative effects that the resultant elements and forms have in relationship to the particular setting seems instinctual and intuitive. Here, two very simple ideas of a gently undulating plane and a spinning, weaving line, combine to form a delightful interplay in response to the physical context, and evolve into a singular work of rich complexity, not only framing, but also creating, the place.
This project of Nishizawa and nendo is small, but what it amply demonstrates is the opportunity that in-between, left-over spaces can offer without having to resort to grand gesture: the lightness of touch employed here is dependent upon, and empowered by, the essential engagement with the site.
The beautifully simple elements and elegantly resolved details are typical of both Nishizawa – the slender columns and canopy forms have their precedents in his work with Kazuyo Sejima at SANAA – and of nendo, although the latter’s expressive treatment of steel rods here, has echoes of the work of the Brazilian-based Japanese artist Tomie Ohtake too.
An exhibition on the design development process of the project is laid out in the Entrance Lounge gallery of the University, contained by a spindly steel-rod handrail and other associated elements, all also designed by nendo. While not much explanatory text is offered, even in Japanese, the project’s essential idea and design elements of an organic roof form (Nishizawa) over stools and handrails (nendo) is clear from the start. What makes for compelling viewing is the presentation of the actual, mostly hand-drawn, design studies and roughly crafted working models, which show an intensity of design exploration, without any sense of over-editing or self-conscious revisionism. Together, the material on display combines to give a good deal of insight into the evolution of the generative ideas.
Unlike many previous projects by these designers, this is not one that looks its best at the moment of pristine completion before the messy reality of life takes over. Here, one anticipates, the materials’ qualities will appreciate greatly over time, the rawness disappearing as the timber ages to slivery grey, patinated by areas of moss and lines of water run-off, whilst a rich vegetation will grow up around the stools and over the stone walls. The plum trees will mature into a dense grove and become an integral part of the visitor’s experience, enhancing the moment of quiet repose, and individual dasein contemplation. It is a place that will repay future visits.
– Jef Smith is a co-founder of meld architecture in London. He lectures at University of Kent and is a teaching fellow at University of Bath.