SANAA is the name of the architecture office behind unique projects, such as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (Kanazawa Prefecture, 2004), the New Art Museum (New York, 2007) and the Serpentine Gallery Pavillion (London, 2009).
But who are the individuals behind this name? Who are the founders of one of the most particular architecture studios of our time and what are the ideas on which they have based their way of seeing and making architecture?
SANAA was born for a fortuitous situation: Kazuyo Sejima, whom already had her own studio specialized in designing little private houses since 1987, was invited for a competition for the extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sidney in 1995. Ryue Nishizawa, who collaborated in the Sejima studio, told her he wanted to begin his own professional activity, so she proposed him the competition as the final work together. They won the competition and it was clear that the collaboration Sejima-Nishizawa couldn’t finish so rapidly. They founded in the same year the studio SANAA, while continuing their detached individual activities. Among the large number of prizes, in 2010 they received the Pritzker Prize thanks to the O-Museum in Nagano and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.
During the conference “Architecture is Environment” they held at Harvard Architecture School in 2011, they admitted to have chosen as a statement to keep a smaller dimension of the office, with a maximum of 50 people, in order to have a better control in the flow of projects, competitions and building sites, and to maintain a certain coherence in all their works.
Architecture is an infinite world of experimentation and exploration, every situation can have infinite possible solutions, all of them with the same value; there are only the sensitivity and the experience of the architects, along with the conditions of the exact moment of design which generate the final product. Ryue Nishizawa in an interview for El Croquis 139-155 says:
“You can take different paths and arrive at different solutions, because in theory at least, there can be thousand different solutions, and all of them are right. Computer technology played the role of producing many different solutions at the same time. […] Not only the technological part, but also the creative part […] is heavily influenced by the computer age.”
He is perfectly conscious of the uncertainty of architecture, but, at the same time, Kazuyo Sejima and he know well how to manage it in order not to get lost in the process. They know what they want and use computers as instruments to reach the target in the fastest, easiest, perhaps cheapest, way possible.
The SANAA architecture could be defined as a continuous experimentation of in-between spaces. They are capable to generate flexibility, to render voids as spaces themselves in a new type of discreteness and disaggregation we have not seen before.
Their so-called “white on white idiom” is the exact, but uncertain at the same time, way in which they look at the space: just a color, just a void, just functions divided by simple squares or rectangular forms or curvilinear forms. The architecture is mixed with what lays around it, it is open to the circumstances and to the environment. The space is cut with an enclosure and inside it, the real project takes place, made by juxtaposed boxes in order to host what is necessary and to be open to change. They are able to generate an artificial labyrinth of paths that permits to explore the space one piece at a time and, most of all, permits to people to surprisingly meet in architecture, giving birth to new possibilities. Their architecture embraces development and free form.
These “social narratives” are a sort of Manifesto for SANAA, and every project is the confirmation of this innovative way of designing and looking at things around us.
Architecture has to be considered as the environment of our life and the environment has to be considered architecture as well. This mutual dependence is what makes an architecture in the right place in the right historical period and this is what SANAA has well understood and demonstrates it in every new work.
If we consider some examples of some of their projects we can easily understand their ideas. For the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art they wisely responded at the necessities of the place: in that point people come from all around without any particular hierarchy, so a possible solution is a big circle with four entries in the opposite directions to invite people to come inside. And one time they enter the museum they are left free to wander in it and choose their own path, their own experience, they can find independent boxes with independent expositions. And also the transparent façade permits to see what happens in the interior spaces, generating a new interest and curiosity for whom that are outside.
Another suggestive project is the Teshima Art Museum, in which they have produced a profound bond with the natural context by pandering the topography and the spectacular panoramas nearby. The experimentation produced a drop-of-water shape in concrete poured at once after having made a hill of soil as a form. The result is stunning, we see architecture reduced to pure essence, only the experience of the protected void towards nature, one little entry, two holes for the light and the white concrete all around.
More, in the New Art Museum in New York they started from the simplest form of a classical Manhattan Block and from that point, they deconstructed the original form, split floors, changed heights to make variations as main design theme and to respond to the different needs of the interior space of the museum.
In SANAA’s projects, we can see an interpretation of the conjunction between art and architecture. The void is the space of experience, the constant in the unpredictable paths. Architecture has been folded until its purity and what remains, in the end, is only the life their buildings host.
– SANAA, El Croquis 139, 155, 179-180
– Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, Architecture is Environment, Conference at Harvard Architecture School, 2011
– Yuko Hasegawa, Kazuyo Sejima+Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA, Electa Architecture, Phaidon Press, 2006, 268 pp.
SANAA – Louvre Lens, Pas-de-Calais, France, 2012 – Photo: Julien Lanoo