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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2008

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SANAA duo Ryue Nishizawa (left) and Kazuyo Sejima during their JT interview YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO



Successes stack up for Tokyo design duo

Staff writer

Being an architect requires patience and endurance. For argument's sake, let's just say it's 2002 and, as the highlight of your career to date, you win the competition to design a new art museum in one of the most prized locations in the world: Manhattan.

Time to crack open the champagne? Well, not quite. For architects, winning a competition is like taking the first, nervous step into a giant labyrinth — a labyrinth so vast and complicated that it might be years before you emerge at the other end.

Japanese architecture office SANAA — centered on its principals, Kazuyo Sejima (born 1956) and her protege-turned-business-partner Ryue Nishizawa (born 1966) — was set up in 1995. Old-timers? Well, after winning several high-profile competitions around the turn of the century (the New Museum in Manhattan included), it's only in the last three or four years that they have finally begun to emerge from their labyrinths and present the world with the tangible fruits of their amazing architectural vision.

In 2004, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, a large circular glass structure encasing a random sprinkle of square galleries, opened in that city in Ishikawa Prefecture in rural west-central Japan — and was promptly bestowed with the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale for architecture.

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SANAA's stunning New Museum of Contemporary Art, opened in Manhattan in December DEAN KAUFMAN PHOTO

A year earlier, they completed their first major work in Tokyo: the elegant, glass curtain-fronted Christian Dior Building Omotesando in swanky Aoyama. In 2006, along with several buildings in Europe, they finished their first major commission in America, the Toledo Museum of Art's Glass Pavilion, which stunned critics for being perhaps the world's first genuinely transparent museum — both external and internal walls are made of glass.

By early last year it had become de rigueur in architectural circles to cite SANAA in lists of the most innovative architects in the world — alongside the likes of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito.

Then came the Manhattan project: On Dec. 1, 2007 the New Museum of Contemporary Art opened to the public on the Bowery. Just before they headed off for those opening festivities, Sejima and Nishizawa sat down with The Japan Times to talk about that project and how they got where they are.

SANAA stands for Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates, and it is the business you operate together. How did it start?

Sejima: When I set up my own office in 1987, Nishizawa was still a graduate student. He came and worked for me part time. When he finished his studies in 1990 he started working full time. After a while, when he started thinking about quitting to open his own office, I asked him if he'd work with me. Then we started SANAA (in 1995).

Nishizawa: Well originally, I had no intention of making a joint office with Sejima-san, but when I was about to quit we decided that for international competitions and large-scale domestic jobs it might be interesting to work together. So SANAA, the joint office, was created essentially to do those large jobs, such as the 21st Century Museum and the New Museum. I have my own office too, for smaller jobs: houses, shops, interiors.

So, Sejima was your boss and then became your partner, right?

N: She's still my boss! It just looks like a partnership from the outside!

S: No, he was actually one of the first part-timers who came to work for me, so it was always like we were working together.

Can you describe your work process? Who actually comes up with the design ideas?

S: We get asked a lot if there is any division of the responsibilities between us. But there isn't! Our way of working was never that one of us would lead with a sketch, and then our staff would work from that. Rather, from the very beginning, all our staff throw in ideas — How's this? How's that? — and then we decide on the direction through a process of discussion. But when it's time to decide on something, Nishizawa and I do it together.

Your building for the New Museum in Manhattan has a very distinctive appearance — it's like variously shaped boxes piled on top of each other. Where did that idea came from?

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Mesh cladding on the New Museum's exterior reflects the area's abundance of restaurant-supply outlets, while the "stack of boxes" design allows for terraces with views on each floor and skylights to let in light to the galleries. DEAN KAUFMAN PHOTO

S: Well, the New Museum opened in 1977, and it was a museum that a group of curators had started themselves so they could do what they wanted, with more freedom. The building had to be free, new and different, like the art.

N: First, with a plot of land as small as that 740 sq. meters, there was no alternative but to stack the galleries on top of each other. But when you put galleries on top of each other, you end up with a high-rise building, right? In that situation the most cost-effective method is to make what's known as a "typical floor plan." In other words, all the floors end up the same and, as a consequence, the building ends up looking more like an office tower than a museum. So we decided that each floor needed to look different from the others, and to achieve that we needed to vary their sizes.

The other thing was that by changing the size and shifting the positions of each floor, or each gallery (because there is essentially just one gallery per floor), it was possible to add skylights in the middle floors. Normally you can't have skylights in the middle floors of a high-rise, right, because there's a room the same dimensions above.

S: The different-sized floors also made terraces on the middle floors possible, and they were important too. In galleries it's difficult to make windows, because you need walls for the art. So we came up with the skylight and terrace idea. Maybe you could put art on the outside terraces, or something. And people can go out there too, and then you can see the New York skyline from an unusual height.

You know, if it's an office building then the general public doesn't have free access, but they do in an art museum. So they can come in and enjoy a new dialogue with the city. Also, the building needed to be set back from the street, so each floor is a little smaller than the one below. And we've added further variety by changing the ceiling heights of each floor, so a smaller gallery might have a higher ceiling.

The exterior surface of the building is also unusual. What material did you use?

N: It's a polished aluminum mesh, and it is positioned slightly away from the surface of the building, meaning it is like a double-layered wall. Consequently the wall appears to have a depth to it. Its appearance also changes depending on the weather. When it's cloudy it looks gray and flat, but when the sun shines the aluminum reflects the sun, and the shadows of the mesh are visible on the internal wall.

S: The other factor was the surrounding neighborhood, the Bowery, which is home to restaurant-equipment suppliers. The mesh was a kind of reference to that, but we've made the gauge of the mesh much larger than it would be in any product.


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