Junya Ishigami claims inaugural Obel Award for architecture

Junya Ishigami+Associates has been presented architecture's latest prize, the 2019 Obel Award, for its Art Biotop Water Garden in a ceremony at the Utzon Center in Aalborg, Denmark

Artbiotop ishigami
Ishigai's project ‘Water Garden' leaves us wondering ‘is this architecture, landscape architecture, or art', says jury chair Martha Schwartz.
(Image credit: Nikissimo)

Junya Ishigami+Associates has won the inaugural Obel Award, in recognition of its Art Biotop Water Garden in the Nasu Mountains of the Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. Just as his Serpentine Pavilion closes in London, the Japanese architect was given €100,000 with the award at the Utzon Centre in Aalborg, Denmark, making the new prize Europe’s most lucrative architecture award. 

The awarding jury, chaired by Martha Schwartz of U.S. landscaping firm Martha Schwartz Partners and comprising Kjetil Trædal Thorsen of Snöhetta, Louis Becker of Henning Larsen, and Dr Wilhelm Vossenkuhl, a philosopher at the University of Munich, praised Ishigami’s approach of blending architecture, the landscape and art. This, they argued, manifested in the Art Biotop Water Garden, which saw 300 trees be transported from one island to another to create an oasis comprising small, shallow pools of water and meandering waterways nestled among an array of trees — all of which were meticulously observed and researched to ensure their ecological longevity. 

‘[This was] a project that creates a new environment based on the idea of understanding a landscape as architecture,' said Ishigami describing the project at the award’s ceremony. ‘The idea was to superimpose the water and the environment created by the trees [based on] the historical fact that the site was [previously used as rice] paddy fields… It was extremely important to create a new natural environment only by re-constructing natural elements that used to exist at the place, including trees, mosses,  grasses, stones, water and soil.'

One the project's sketches by the architect

One the project's sketches by the architect

(Image credit: Junya Ishigami)

Schwartz meanwhile added: ‘Ishigami’s architecture is the architecture of space, not of object. He discards the idea of architecture as a built, utilitarian structure by reversing the business-as-usual process, which is: building first, landscape second – if at all. Instead, with the project ‘Water Garden’, Ishigami leaves us wondering: is this architecture, landscape architecture, or art?'

So what is the Obel Award? You can be forgiven for not knowing (and forgive autocorrect for thinking you meant to type “Nobel”) — the architecture prize is new, set up by the Henrik Frode Obel Foundation after Obel died in 2014. It will be presented annually, with the aim of recognising ‘outstanding architectural contributions to human development all over the world,' taking into account projects including manifestos, masterplans, buildings, landscaping and even exhibitions from the last five years. Along with the cash prize, recipients will receive an artwork by Argentinian artist, Tomás Saraceno. A theme will be set by the jury for each award. ‘Welfare Through Architecture' was the theme for the Obel’s first year, aiming to focus on the transformative and social value of architecture. ‘I believe that in the future this Obel Award will become a tradition and a well-known award in the world,' added Ishigami. ‘In that sense, I would like to engage in working with architecture now with a refreshed mindset that can keep up with the development of this award,' said Ishigami at the award’s ceremony. ‘I believe that we architects today must comprehend architecture on a planetary scale, or rather on a natural scale, [compared] to the architects of yesterday who comprehended architecture on a city scale.'

Artbiotop ishigami view

(Image credit: Nikissimo)

Artbiotop ishigami aerial

(Image credit: Nikissimo)

Artbiotop ishigami oben award

(Image credit: Yasuyuki Takagi)