Junya Ishigami reinvents “building into the earth” with a House & Restaurant in Japan

Exuding heaviness and resilience, this stereotomic cave-like structure in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture, functions as a home and culinary space for Japanese chef Motonori Hirata.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Oct 01, 2022

In a provocative inversion of the norms associated with traditional architectural tectonics, Junya Ishigami, who leads his Tokyo-based practice junya.ishigami + associates, has “excavated” a residence and restaurant from the earth in the city of Ube, within Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture. A cave-like building, with raw, unpolished finishes across its organic structural members, the project was realised for chef Motonori Hirata, who implored the Japanese architect to create something that would radiate weightiness and resilience. As Ishigami reveals in a statement, "I was asked to design a building that would appear as 'heavy' as possible. The client desired a form of architecture whose heaviness would increase with time." He adds, “He did not want it to be artificially smooth but rather, something with the roughness of nature. In his view, authentic cuisines required such a place, and it needed to look as if it had been there and will continue to endure there for a very long time."

The project was designed for a Japanese chef, Motonori Hirata, and has been realised through a subtractive construction process | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
The project was designed for a Japanese chef, Motonori Hirata, and has been realised through a subtractive construction process Image: © junya.ishigami + associates

Hirata - a French restaurant owner, and the one who had originally commissioned Ishigami’s Tables for a restaurant project - sought to develop a hospitality design that would eventually transform into a well-established venue in the long term and endure for generations. "He was longing for something that was both a house and a restaurant, something he could pass on to his children and grandchildren. Now, he invites guests to the restaurant as he would invite friends to his house, and with someone special, he would let them into the living room or even stay overnight. When the restaurant is closed, the hall serves as a place for the family to spend time or for the children to study," relays Ishigami.

A billowing cloud-like roof surface crowns the structure, which barely reaches the level of its bounding road by virtue of being built into the earth | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
A billowing cloud-like roof surface crowns the structure, which barely reaches the level of its bounding road by virtue of being built into the earth Image: © junya.ishigami + associates

By virtue of his avant garde approach to design which explores form, materiality, and spatial moulding in an almost experimental  fashion, Ishigami’s projects distinctly stand out within the expanding canon of contemporary Japanese architecture. This is especially relevant here, as the construction process was centred on reacting and adapting to imperfections and distortions naturally present in the topography of its site. In fact, the building itself was not built “on” the site but rather “carved” out of the terrain and soil layers beneath it, through a process that involved pile driving, concrete filling, and excavation. Ishigami puts it in simple terms, stating: “More specifically, we dug a hole in the ground to pour concrete, excavated the volume, and fixed glass to create interior spaces.”

A billowing cloud-like roof surface crowns the structure, which barely reaches the level of its bounding road by virtue of being built into the earth | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
The building has been almost ‘carved’ out of the terrain rather than built on it Image: © junya.ishigami + associates

According to the design team, this initially necessitated the development of a mass model that was converted to 3D data, enabling it to be fed into a TS (Total Station) survey instrument, which could then narrow down points for pile driving. "At the same time, construction workers dug holes manually while constantly confirming their position and shape on an iPad. Unexpected factors such as growing grass, soil collapsing, or errors due to manual labour were tolerated as much as possible. When the structure was excavated after the concrete solidified, it was caked with mud. We originally planned to wash away the dirt for an exposed concrete structure," mentions Ishigami. Although, as already apparent, this step was abandoned due to the impressive textures rendered by different soil types on the surface of the structure.

The building has been almost “carved” out of the terrain rather than built on it | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
The building has been almost “carved” out of the terrain rather than built on it Image: Courtesy of maison owl

This produced an environment that evoked caverns inside natural rock formations, which inspired the design team to completely rework parts of their scheme in order to harness the unique spatial ambience they had created. Additionally, inconsistencies between the firm’s 3D models and the actual geometries of the excavated structure generated a number of new spaces as well as irregularities in the realisation of the original layout, prompting updates to the initial design. In effect, the architects were forced to find new ways to inhabit these unplanned zones, which had arisen from so-called “errors” in the design and construction process.

  • Using 3D data as a reference to drive piles into the terrain and fill them with concrete, the architects subsequently excavated the excess soil to reveal the final structure | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    Using 3D data as a reference to drive piles into the terrain and fill them with concrete, the architects subsequently excavated the excess soil to reveal the final structure Image: Courtesy of maison owl
  • Although the plan was to initially wash away the surface layer of soil for an exposed concrete structure, the design team elected to retain it due to its impressive textures | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    Although the plan was to initially wash away the surface layer of soil for an exposed concrete structure, the design team elected to retain it due to its impressive textures Image: Courtesy of maison owl

Coarseness and deformities subsequently perceived on the project’s surfaces are almost reminiscent of weathering, despite how the structure was actually moulded by human hands and tools. Hirata’s wish for a "heavy” building in this case, was interpreted in a manner that took the naturally-occurring process of soil erosion and sped it up, generating a result that seems ancient, unyielding, and immovable - firmly rooted in its setting, forging a dialogue with it, and calling on impressions of primitive rock cut architecture, that conceal its true complexity. Viewed from above, the structure resembles a billowing, cloud-like mass with three perforations on its surface, each corresponding to a courtyard in the plan.

  • Vaults and archways are staple features of the design | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    Vaults and archways are staple features of the design Image: © junya.ishigami + associates
  • Furnishings are simple and scattered sparsely throughout the plan | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    Furnishings are simple and scattered sparsely throughout the plan Image: © Yashiro Photo Office

Another point of interest lies in the building’s perceived scale when compared to its neighbours. Whereas all nearby structures rise above the topography’s ground plane, the roof structure of this house and restaurant struggles to breach this height. As it has been built "into" the earth rather than “on” it, much of the building’s true appearance is concealed by the retaining walls that surround it. Even entering the space would require a user to descend a staircase design built into the surrounding earth wall, with uneven treads of natural stone. Furthermore, there is little semblance of a façade design when viewed from any angle, as there are virtually no projections, strong textural contrasts, or hints of conventional symmetry, where the building is an objet trouvé in its context.

  • The irregular structural members partition and frame spaces, imparting a unique feel to each space | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    The irregular structural members partition and frame spaces, imparting a unique feel to each space Image: © junya.ishigami + associates
  • Archways with glass windows frame views of the exterior | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    Archways with glass windows frame views of the exterior Image: L to R: © junya.ishigami + associates, Ikko Dobashi

Stereotomic architectural constructions seldom take things to the extremes seen in this case, where the volume of soil subtracted from the terrain far exceeds any additive intervention. The latter component of the design is essentially restricted to the creation of enclosures through glass panels, custom made to fill the structure's warped archways, and provide some distinction between interior and exterior. Programmatically, the residential wing has been placed towards the south, with the more public space of the restaurant design occupying an opposing northern section of the site. Segregation in this fashion, assists in maintaining a gradient of privacy, even though the spaces themselves are not entirely disconnected from one another. The three courtyards bridge the two typologies, allowing movement between them through a variety of routes. Landscape design further weaves the building into its surroundings, where greens have overtaken internal courtyards as well as the voids between the structure and its earth enclosure.

  • Larger clearings have been provided for the kitchen and dining spaces | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    Larger clearings have been provided for the kitchen and dining spaces Image: © junya.ishigami + associates
  • The interior design showcases a clash between organic and geometric design languages, as well as contemporary and naturalistic aesthetics | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    The interior design showcases a clash between organic and geometric design languages, as well as contemporary and naturalistic aesthetics Image: © junya.ishigami + associates

On the interior design front, space is primarily divided by glass walls and the vertical structural members, reminiscent of unions between exceedingly dense stalactites and stalagmites. No two of them possess the exact same profile, each unique and independent but simultaneously interconnected as parts of a whole. Vaults and archways are staple features of the design, heavily contributing to the cave-like atmosphere. Larger clearings accommodate dining areas and the kitchen - the latter space is an intriguing fusion of a naturalistic aesthetic with contemporary equipment and furnishings. Materials have predominantly been left bare, and the clash between geometric design elements and the intricate, curved forms of the building’s structural elements yield a dichotomy that works quite well to enhance the identity of the space as part boutique hospitality experience, and part residential design.

  • Nature has overtaken the voids left behind after excavation, cementing the structure’s integration into its context | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    Nature has overtaken the voids left behind after excavation, cementing the structure’s integration into its context Image: © junya.ishigami + associates
  • The dining area, with its assortment of arched openings looking into neighbouring pockets of landscaping | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    The dining area, with its assortment of arched openings looking into neighbouring pockets of landscaping Image: © Yashiro Photo Office

On the whole, furnishings have been kept quite simple, to avoid detracting from the subtlety of the structure. This holds true even in the living spaces, where the materiality of the walls shines over the decor, ensuring coherence with the exterior while elevating the cave-like atmosphere. Another point of interest is the design of fixtures and the service layout, where the excavated structure’s morphology was used as a reference for the provision of fixtures, glass windows, fittings, as well as plumbing and electrical lines.

  • The bedrooms have been placed in the residential wing in the southern portion of the | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    The bedrooms have been placed in the residential wing in the southern portion of the site Image: © junya.ishigami + associates
  • The earthy textures of the excavated structure are the highlight of the design, taking centre stage throughout | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
    The earthy textures of the excavated structure are the highlight of the design, taking centre stage throughout Image: © junya.ishigami + associates

Echoing the organic processes that have shaped much of the planet’s topography as well as some of humanity’s earliest shelters, this venture, which combines residential and hospitality architecture, is testimony to the innate beauty found in accepting imperfections. An exposition of the unfathomable complexity that is present in naturally occurring systems and processes, as well as the sheer diversity that they yield, Ishigami’s latest experiment, realised over a six-year period that commenced in 2016, makes a poignant case for a return to architecture that evolves, persists, and revels in its disdain for the rigidity of human order - much like nature itself.

Diagram of the layout of piles along the site | House & Restaurant in Yamaguchi | junya.ishigami + associates | STIRworld
Diagram of the layout of piles along the site Image: © junya.ishigami + associates

Project Details

Name: House & Restaurant
Location: Ube, Yamaguchi, Japan
Site Area: 914.69 sqm
Building Area: 270.72 sqm
Total Floor Area: 195.41 sqm
Year of Completion: 2022
Client: Motonori Hirata
Architect: junya.ishigami+associates
Lead Architects: Junya Ishigami, Taeko Abe, Jaehyub Ko, Takuya Nakayama
Structural Engineer: Jun Sato Structural Engineers (Jun Sato, Yoshihiro Fukushima)
Lighting Design: junya.ishigami+associates (Junya Ishigami, Takuya Nakayama )
Interior Design: junya.ishigami+associates (Junya Ishigami, Takuya Nakayama )
Lighting Advisor: Izumi Okayasu Lighting Design (Izumi Okayasu)
Curtain Design: Yoko Ando Design
General Contractor: Akita Kensetsu Co.,Ltd. (Masato Akita, Gaku Matsumoto, Takaki Fukuda, Takuya Nakayama, Akane Enda, Yuki Inoue)
MEP: Echo Mechanical Plumber (Koichi Tashiro)
Landscape Design: SOLSO (Yuta Itagaki), Takayama Zoen (Kazuya Kiryu)
Glass Supplier: Meiji Glass Company Limited (Kensuke Kashihara)
Fixtures: Yanagiya (Yoshio Yanagiya)
Furniture: Gotanda Seisakusho Co., Ltd. (Shigeki Miyamoto, Ai Mizuta)
 RC Furniture: I.D.Works (Hayato Takehashi)

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