“Cutting Fabric”, Domus #917, September 1, 2008

The opening of a new Yoji Yamamoto boutique in Manhattan early February went almost unnoticed by the progressively more architecturally minded New York public. The reports of Junya Ishigami’s subtle but brilliant renovation of a triangular one-story brick structure were lost among announcements of yet another luxury high-rise development by a big name architect.

Maybe this was because Ishigami’s talent is still unknown outside of Japan—this will change this September when his design for the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biannual opens—or because its unassuming location—not in the heart but rather on the edge of the increasingly popular Meatpacking District. More likely it is because the intervention takes place on the scale of the city and the architectural detail, deliberately ignoring a scale in between—the scale that is typically considered that of the architectural project, at least in New York.

Through a simple but decisive cut, the old building is split into two new parts.

A generous slice out of the north facade along the lively West 13th Street creates an inviting opening, clearly splitting the building in two. At the more quite, southern Gansevoort Street the continuity of the street frontage is kept. A minimal cut creates an inconspicuous alley. A final slice where the two streets meet sharpens the building into the shape of a scissor blade.

The independent glass and brick pavilion generated through these incisions is both soft and spiky. It sits at the intersection, somewhat dazzled having been cut loose from the fabric of the city. The interior is austere, with slender steel display rods and free standing dressing rooms shaped as frozen curtains. Through its large open windows, it presents a carefully curated—and constantly changing—selection of Yamamoto’s collection.

Yet this beautiful open structure does not operate completely autonomously. The alleyway also creates a functional split between the service and served spaces. Employees need to cross the alley to access the stock room.

Reshaping the building was an involved procedure. The formerly painted brick walls were disassembled from top to bottom, vigorously cleaned, and reassembled into a new shape. This process allowed for new embedded window frames into the façade. Through this move, the structure’s large glass panes, some of them curved—seem to effortlessly disappear into the walls. A dramatic brick cantilever hovers over the sharp glazed corner at the junction of the new alley and Gansevoort Street. These sophisticated and delicate operations give the structure its mystifying character.

Renovation typically entails the reconfiguration of the interior plan for a new use. This reassembly of a mundane industrial building into a slice of refined architecture shows us a complete new way of dealing with the existing fabric of the city. The interior is merely created by manipulation of the exterior. The sharpening of the point and accentuation of the triangular shape make the space fluid; the interior escapes into the city, and with it, everything it embraces.

Manhattan’s grid and the shape of its buildings are the result of a series of real estate transactions. The Yamamoto shop shows that the shape of the city can be more than this. Apart from a refined selection of garments, the project displays optimism and generosity by giving a street back to the public. As a subtle hint to this thoughtfulness, a trace of brick embedded in the sidewalk traces the form of the building’s previous, more ordinary, life.