Mind & Matter


Masters of Atmosphere

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Dior Omotesando, Tokyo. Photo by Author.


As the highest honor awarded to an architect, the Pritzker Prize is rarely granted to an undeserving recipient. This year’s selection therefore comes as no surprise. The Japanese firm of Sejima and Nishizawa (SANAA) have been running at a creative full-tilt lately, with some of the most important international architectural contributions in the past several years—including the Glass Pavilion in Toledo, Ohio, the 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa, the New Museum in New York, and the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland.

SANAA’s work has been a recent focus of mine because of the firm’s innovative use of materials. “What materials?” you might ask—which is precisely the point: SANAA exemplifies the art of editing, eschewing unwanted elements, and removing all but the most necessary details—to the extent that one even questions the physical presence of their buildings. The gossamer Glass Pavilion bends light and views within its crystalline interior; the Naoshima Terminal offers generous shelter on impossibly thin columns; and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa provides a luminous collection of interconnected spaces that all but disappear in the presence of art.

SANAA’s buildings exemplify Sejima’s quest for funiki—or atmosphere—in architecture. This quality is evident in dreamlike spaces that offer a necessary escape from our increasingly frenetic, over-programmed world. SANAA’s work imparts an important lesson for today’s architecture student: work harder at editing content rather than merely accumulating it. For the practicing architect, the advice might be this: push your most important ideas as far as they can go, and execute them as purely as possible.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.