Imagine walking into a space the size of a sports field or an urban piazza, covered by a roof. The room is nearly featureless, primarily defined by a sea of gray paving that slopes gently upward toward four edges. The only evident patterning comes from the daylight penetrating through rectangular openings above, placed seemingly at random. The roof itself feels remarkably unsettling in its apparent defiance of gravity: No columns or walls support the roughly 180-by-285-foot surface, which is about 80% the length of a football field. Furthermore, the roof is not a lightweight fabric but a continuous steel plate that sags under its own weight toward the middle of the space. As a result of this inverted camber, the view directly across the room lacks a horizon—a downward-sloping roof meeting an upward-sloping ground plane with no apparent perimeter.
In the history of the built environment, this space—Junya Ishigami’s KAIT Plaza at Kanagawa Institute of Technology in Japan—is probably unique. It gives us, its visitors, very few individual characteristics to draw our attention. Yet this very absence of presumably unavoidable elements—structure and horizon—is what pulls us in. Stunned, we gaze transfixed at an otherworldly void.
Set in the city of Atsugi, the plaza is a marvel of structural engineering. But more important, the project is a model of how to create an indelible impression on visitors based on the principles of neuroscience. The formula here is deceptively simple but profound: Minimize visual noise while maximizing novelty.
The human brain constantly battles between two conflicting agendas, automation and innovation. The former explains our search for efficiency and habituation. We develop skills and knowledge to accomplish more in less time, so we don’t have to devote significant attention to mundane tasks. The brain longs for routine, and the path of least resistance requires less energy to be expended on the known. Yet efficiency breeds boredom. “The better we understand something, the less effort we put into thinking about it,” write neuroscientist David Eagleman and musician Anthony Brandt, authors of The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (Catapult, 2017). “Familiarity breeds indifference. Repetition suppression sets in and our attention wanes.”
So, the brain also craves surprise. We yearn for the unexpected—for aberrations, divergence, and wonder—to spark new ideas and deliver meaningful changes in experience. Without plot twists, we retrace the same storylines. No ‘eureka’ moments equate to technological stagnation. And the lack of surprise is, well, boring. And so the brain seeks novelty while it simultaneously yearns to be efficient—a phenomenon called mediated versus automated behavior. “Humans live inside a competition between automated behavior, which reflects habits, and mediated behavior, which defeats them,” Eagleman and Brandt write. “Automated behavior gives us expertise: When the sculptor chisels, the architect builds a model, or the scientist conducts an experiment, practiced dexterity helps to make new outcomes possible. If we can’t execute our new ideas, we struggle to bring them to life. But automated behavior can’t innovate. Mediated behavior is how we generate novelty. It is the neurological basis of creativity.”
The KAIT Plaza project takes maximum advantage of this inner struggle. The provision of a few familiar elements (e.g., a door, paving) acknowledges our need for automation, while the sheer novelty of the column-free structure fulfills the aim of mediation. Ishigami’s distillation of architecture to the fewest possible components—ground and firmament—maximizes signal while minimizing noise, enabling the brain to focus on the project’s more unusual features without distractions. This approach of ‘freebasing’ architecture (street jargon for increasing a substance’s potency) maximizes the intensity of user experience and, by extension, its memorability. This strategy also drives Ishigami’s other works in Japan, each of which has a unique identity. For example, the KAIT Workshop distributes vertical loads among a forest of many thin, irregularly placed steel supports; the Maison Owl house and restaurant locates customers in a cave-like escape below ground; and the Art Biotop Water Garden distributes tiny lakelets and stone paths throughout a wooded glade.
Unconvinced? Consider how conventional design approaches would have significantly undermined the KAIT Plaza project. For example, if Ishigami had added more architectural features, such as paving patterns or ceiling regulating lines, the increased visual noise would have weakened the experiential impact of the plaza’s novel characteristics. Alternatively, if the architect had employed only conventional engineering and construction methods, such as a regular grid of columns, the absence of novelty would have delivered a mundane experience.
Given these obvious points, why are most buildings designed to be forgettable? Programmatic complexity is one likely answer since most projects have more intricate functions than the KAIT Plaza, which serves as an informal gathering space for students. Yet a complex program is all the more reason to simplify the design language, as seen in successful examples like SANAA’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa. Another potential response is utility. But the presumption that novel approaches are inherently less pragmatic is false. Just look at how the KAIT Plaza’s column-free expanse permits vastly more adaptability than a space subdivided by pilotis or walls. A third answer might be cost. Novelty does require more design time and effort, and it can easily be more expensive in execution—but this need not be the case for every project, and the minimization of architectural features can reduce costs.
One of the remarkable aspects of the KAIT Plaza is the constant, ever-changing quality of daylight. Unobstructed sunlight delivers crisp shadows on the ground. But when the sun is partly veiled behind clouds, the silhouettes of the roof penetrations become blurred. The subtly variegated light across the undulating groundscape imparts the impression of floating underwater. This transcendent experience reminds me of how Kengo Kuma once argued the necessity of incorporating novelty in architecture to create memorable, meaningful places. “Reality is only truly perceived in the presence of some unreality,” Kuma explained. “If it is a little unreal, there is a little bit of a surprise. If there is no surprise with something, it is not real, because it goes unnoticed. It might as well not exist.”
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.