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The search for “almost nothing”

When considering the work of SANAA, you would like to think that it could not be reduced any further. But then Kazuyo Sejima (*1956) and Ryue Nishizawa (*1966) produce another surprise with a design that puts previous ones in the shade. The architect duo from Tokyo, who are noted for their puristic buildings, were awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2010.

The ability of the Japanese architects Sejima and Nishizawa is not limited to extraordinary thought. The two also know how to communicate this with a certain verve. And so it proved in Weil am Rhein, where SANAA designed the production hall of the affiliated firm Vitrashop on the Vitra Campus. “You never win against Sejima,” said client Rolf Fehlbaum with a beaming smile at the press conference. “Sometimes she can even be a little pigheaded.” Instead of dividing the total area of the new hall into four separate areas as requested by company management, SANAA proposed a single, almost circular building. The façade cladding, which comprises only 6 mm-thick, corrugated acrylic glass encloses the building like a curtain. It lends the huge structure a light, almost weightless character. After the completion of the “Factory of the future” in 2009, the client had to wait another three years for the façade. This patience was rewarded: SANAA have reinvented the industrial building.

This was the first production building in almost 20 years of collaboration between the architect duo. “Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates” became SANAA in 1995. Besides the collaborative practice, both partners run their own practices too. After SANAA realised a number of residential properties and smaller museums in Japan in the 1990s, they turned the focus of their activities increasingly towards Europe and the United States, where they quickly developed a distinctive image with their extraordinary proposals. The designs of SANAA are characterised by transparency and openness, a minimalistic reduction in terms of material and colour, and a predilection for glass, concrete and the colour white. “We concentrate on the essence. That is the most important thing to us. And the essence of a space is simply white. It is not possible to reduce things any further, otherwise our architecture would probably be transparent or invisible,” explained Sejima in one of her rare programmatic statements.
This search for “almost nothing” runs through the work of SANAA like a common thread. Despite the impressively extensive list of projects, their website merely presents five e-mail addresses on a white background. This restraint conveys precisely the simplicity that SANAA also cultivate in their designs.

The architect duo found global recognition with the “21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art” in Kanazawa, which was opened in 2004. The circular building structure has neither a front side nor a clearly defined main entrance. The public uses are arranged along the outer façade, which is glazed all the way around. Inside the circle, there are exhibition areas spread over a number of galleries that are surrounded by access zones and interspersed with inner courtyards, through the glass façades of which daylight reaches the interior of the building. Depending on space requirements, the areas can be subdivided using large sliding glass walls. With this traditionally Japanese building unit, SANAA not only brought an extremely reduced form to the complex layout but, via the circular external façade, they also created the relationship between the inside and outside worlds that are characteristic of their designs.

The Zollverein Cube demonstrates how the Japanese architects dissolve the massiveness of European buildings. The university building, which was opened in 2006, was built for the “Zollverein School of Management and Design” which has since closed down. In their submission for the design competition, SANAA adorned the façades of the cube, which measures 35 x 35 x 34 m, with a fine-mesh grid comprising around 3500 window openings of varying sizes. That this variety was reduced to 132 windows in four sizes during implementation is only discernable upon closer inspection. However, what is striking is that the windows are concentrated at opposing corners. This positioning is the result of a daylight simulation, which optimised the aspects of “use” and “orientation”. In a second step, SANAA refined the arrangement by incorporating the aspect of “views”. This is one of the principal reasons why most of the windows are located at the south-western corner with a view of the site of the Zollverein coal mine.

SANAA also reacted extremely sensitively to the neighbourhood when working on the “New Museum”, New York, which opened one year later. On a plot of land only 20 m wide, they developed a 53 m tower made of six boxes stacked one on top another, which make the overall volume seem more compartmentalised. Arranging these in a slightly offset fashion creates toplights in three cardinal directions. Polished concrete floors and white walls produce neutral presentation areas for the exhibits. The façade cladding, made of ordinary expanded aluminium, is as brittle in its appearance as the surrounding area of Bowery, New York’s former slum quarter on the Lower East Side of downtown Manhattan.

Completely different again, that is to say “as delicate as a cloud of smoke floating between the trees” according to SANAA, is the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, with which they enchanted London’s Kensington Gardens in 2009. Chromium steel pillars of different heights supported a polished aluminium roof, which extended over 557 m2 of parkland. The pavilion was largely open – only the café bar and the round event space were protected from the weather by transparent acrylic walls. With this project, SANAA came very close in their search for “almost nothing”.

With a design characterised by a similar openness, but considerably more recognisable as an “architectural landscape”, SANAA created the “Rolex Learning Center”, which opened in 2010. Despite the strictly rectangular floor plan, the newbuild on the campus of the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) appears light and buoyant with its undulating form. With supports that are barely visible, the building caresses the ground, leaving a vast space open beneath through which visitors from all sides find their way to the main entrance. 14 round patios with glazed façades, which have been seemingly stamped into the structure, provide a link between the building and the surrounding moraine landscape. Due to the undulation of the building structure, it is not possible to see the full length of the building – only when wandering through does the inner structure reveal itself, and you begin to orient yourself as if you were in unfamiliar terrain.

The degree to which SANAA see the landscape and architecture as inseparable is once again evident in the “Dependance des Louvre”, which opened in 2012 in Lens, the heart of France’s old coal mining area. While comparable museum buildings call attention to themselves in order to upgrade the locality with sculptural architecture, SANAA developed an extremely plain solution from concrete, glass and aluminium. The exhibition space is distributed over five rectangular cubes which are positioned in series on the former brownfield site. The entrance area, a transparent glass cube, demonstrates the proximity and openness with which the museum wants to present itself to the citizens. The remaining parts of the building are clad with anodised brushed aluminium panels, which reflect the prevailing moods of the surroundings depending on the time of the day and year. In this way, the plain structure integrates harmoniously into the landscape without dominating it.

At the presentation ceremony for the Pritzker Prize in May 2010, the jury paid tribute to the designs of the Japanese architect duo, calling them simultaneously “delicate and powerful” as well as “precise and fluid”. The Kyodo news agency quoted Ryue Nishizawa as saying, “I am very honoured and at the same time very surprised.” Kazuyo Sejima – who is incidentally also the first and, to date, only woman to oversee the Architecture Biennale in Venice – added: “With this prize I will continue trying to make wonderful architecture.” A promise that SANAA have kept to date.