Where’s the space? That’s what I wonder when I see the work of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who operate together as SANAA and who just won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Their work, lyrical in its thinness, lacks what I usually think of as the defining phenomenon of architecture, namely space. Rather, what it misses is the clear delineation, structuring, and differentiation of space. There are no compressed anterooms followed by soaring atria, no vistas through fragments of rooms piled up on top of each other, no beams or arches massing together and straining to open up a void. The work is so thin and aspires to such continuity that it almost disappears.
New Museum in New York City
Does that make it bad? Of course not. It seems as if the partners at SANAA want to make a rhetorical point that this kind of a search for articulation and the reliance on controlled spatial explosion is somehow a waste, or at least beside the point. Take the moment when you come off the elevator at the New Museum in New York City: the door opens, and there you are, in the middle of a gallery space that is almost a cube, with no differentiation of any surfaces, no dramatic light, nothing that soars or compresses. It just is, and the architects do not even give you the courtesy of having you arrive in an anteroom to prepare you for the room. I feel uncomfortable, and I think it is not just because I am trained as an architect: you can watch people react with some confusion, unclear what to make of all the art for which they do not feel prepared and that is not framed in a way that is familiar. This is truly the shock of the new.
Glass Pavilion in Toledo, Ohio
In the Glass Pavilion for the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, photographs catch wonderful reflections and the plan is a delight for all those who love those curves Le Corbusier sent wafting through his modular grids. In reality, you find yourself wandering through spaces with no beginning or end, no separate character and no particular modulation. Only if you stand still, look up at the continuous white plane of the ceiling and look for the stick-like columns, do you realize what work the designers have done to make this transparent labyrinth appear without the seeming presence of any bearing walls, trusses or other methods of opening up the volume.
Novartis office building in Switzerland
In the office building they designed for Novartis, in Switzerland, enclosed space almost disappears: most of the building consists of two large courtyards surrounded by corridors that happen to be office space. The façade appears to not to have any particular features, except that the glass panels that cover every inch of it are held in place with literally tons of silicon. And so it goes with just about all of their buildings: there is almost no there there. The tour-de-force of this disappearing act appears to be the Rolex Learning Center in Geneva, which I have not yet visited, where the whole space is one undulating floor with no separations between either levels or rooms.
Rolex Learning Center in Geneva
What this evanescence leaves is, on the one hand, strong imagery and, on the other, scuffmarks. I do not take either lightly. The stack of galleries that makes up the New Museum, the undulations of Toledo or the Kanazawa Museum, the Rolex’s wave—they all remain imprinted on my mind. They reduce their functions not to their essence, but to something closer to a retinal after-image. All that remains of their reality are the reminders of their use, from the dirt on the buildings’ invariable white surfaces to the furniture users must scatter through the spaces, and which create their own tentative marks of space within the larger volume. Life remains a messy thing, and in SANAA’s buildings, within the default white planes and thin lines of modernism you finally notice that quality. You do not feel smaller than what they have made, and what you do there does not feel subject to the architects’ control. Architecture exists out of the corner of your eye, as something that gives a certain character and coherence to the contingencies of everyday life.
That is what makes SANAA’s work so brilliant, and yet that very word seems to me to make claims that are more heroic than the work is or ever aspires to be. It slips away, not into almost nothing, but into a persistent reminder of something that remains, something not quite outside of the ordinary, something that we might think of as space liberated from form, structure, and sequence. That is certainly praise- and Pritzker-worthy.