Beyond Buildings


Disappearing Act

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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.



Comments (9 Total)

  • Posted by: rtmaia | Time: 2:21 PM Monday, April 05, 2010

    Cold, sterile, hard....not places I want to spend time....any of them. It's hard to comprehend that this is considered good architecture.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:39 PM Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    So.... artsy fartsy non aspiring work is worthy of the Pritzker?

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  • Posted by: anon | Time: 2:32 PM Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    Thanks for the interesting perspective on their work. You make the most persuasive case I've seen yet. Still, I can't help wondering if you're exaggerating the boldness of the New Museum galleries. Yes, you walk right in without ceremony. But don't you do the same at the Whitney and the re-purposed Museum of Arts and Design? Isn't that procession a function of these being high-rise museums, as opposed to the traditional horizontal ones? I find the exterior of the New Museum compelling, but I don't see the galleries as anything more than low-budget crap. I don't buy the argument that they're passing comment on the state of the building arts in NYC..

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  • Posted by: Free | Time: 1:51 PM Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    After re-reading your comments, is it the spatial quality that you are refering to? Or is it SANAA's response to how to acheive such brilliant spaces? Your dialogue seems to go in 2 different directions,not unlike many critics reviews.

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  • Posted by: StructureHub Blog | Time: 12:23 AM Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    That is, SANAA favors adjectives.

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  • Posted by: StructureHub Blog | Time: 12:22 AM Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    Aaron, well put (I am unsure why the above comments think your post is negative re: SANAA). Your view echoes my viseral reaction to much of SANAA's work - a reaction that, for some time, I've struggled to explain in anything but general terms. Incredibly, my reaction tends to be similar for each of their commissions, despite the fact that each commission is a reminder that SANAA generally eschews physical "trademarks" - many architects "mark" their work with nouns; SANAA favors nouns.

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  • Posted by: dearch | Time: 11:37 PM Tuesday, March 30, 2010

    Betsky,what the hell are you talking about? have you seen their past work? Sejima and Nishizawa have created more "space" than you can even begin to imagine. give credit where credit is due..they are great architects

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:42 PM Tuesday, March 30, 2010

    Aaron Betsky, You are shame to your name...but thanks for uploading all good pictures of SANAA's works.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:38 PM Tuesday, March 30, 2010

    Architecture as death mask, as mortuary, as corpse in white. A peculiar heaven, the trace of disappearance.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.