Kazuyo Sejima made her first appearance in the Japanese architectural journals in 1991 as the designer of the Saishunkan Seiyaku Women’s Dormitory. This project provides residential space for first-year employees of the client, a marketer of cosmetic products based in the city of Kumamoto. Conceptually it is a revival of the dormitory style of communal living that emerged in postwar Japan. Utilizing the recently introduced concept of the program,the architect refined the brief into a novel spatial configuration that touched offfierce controversy in the journals, centered on conflicting evaluations of the project’s spatial and social dimensions.
The dormitory provides some 20 shared bedrooms and related functions for groups of four residents each, in addition to a large common living space. These elements are disposed in a severely linear arrangement and expressed as lightweight architecture with a delicate framework. The unifying principle is to allocate only the minimum resources in terms of area and volume to the shared bedrooms while making the common living space as large as possible and further relating the various elements in a multilayer configuration. Critics of the project argued that its open spaces represented a willful challenge to the balance between private and public, overemphasizing the group at the expense of the individual. They called it an architecturally bizarre response to the requirements of the brief. Defenders argued that its lightweight framework was a successful contemporary expression of large spaces, one that could lead to a more general recognition and revision of the socially and qualitatively positive aspects of Japanese residential spaces.
For a time, the design of this small dormitory in a provincial city became an incident that enlivened that pages of the architectural journals and triggered a lively discussion over the nature of Japanese society. In addition to establishing her reputation, this debut work became an important step in the process through which Kazuyo Sejima refined her architectural methodology.
The methodology employed here was to perform a schematic analysis of the nature of each space, and then to reveal new sculptural possibilities for architecture through their configuration. At her office, the first interest has always been in the question of how to transform the brief into tangible space, transforming the required rooms into three-dimensional components that can then be configured spatially. Kazuyo Sejima refers to this process of schematically drawing the specific interior spaces and their sculptural configuration as the program. The program has always existed as part of her methodology, as the foundation for unifying the utilitarian elements of the brief in preparation for explorations of the possibilities offered by the three-dimensional, sculptural configuration of the architecture. The program is no longer merely a matter of diagrams. In her design progress, design units are redefined repeatedly on a number of levels along the way to the final built form. From the overall configuration to the smallest details, every possibility is explored. At sanaa this process of eliminating alternative possibilities is carried out in a very intense fashion, almost as if it were an end in itself. Rejecting the temptation to become captivated by extreme expressions, studies of the spatial configuration continue until they arrive at a brilliantly transparent spatial solution. The design strategy is accepted only after it has been tested and found to be convincing. Their final designs are based not on intuition but on a scientific understanding of the brief.
In this way, tangible investigations are carried out to inject new spatial possibilities into the cosmology represented by the brief. To Kazuyo Sejima, the degree of freedom offered by an idea becomes verifiable only when its merits can be experienced as tangible space. The originality of an architectural form is measured according to the logic of spatial experience rather than by its apparent novelty. Functional analysis, the core of the modernist design method, has been replaced in their methodology by programmatic analysis and programmatic operations.
At the same time, however, the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa departs from the stance of the masters of modernism, who designed tangible architecture by derivation from logical rules. Instead, this practice selects the method of a one-on-one response to the brief. This method looks to the program for the ability to reconcile the brief and architectural form. They are looking for the kind of architectural space in which individual visitors are able to perform a beautiful reproduction of their own values.
The seeds of this method of commenting on society via architecture can be found in the early practice of Kazuyo Sejima. When I first met her, around 1987, she was working on the series of residential projects called the Platform Houses. At that time in Japan there was a general sense of dissatisfaction with the large collective housing projects of the 1970s, which were becoming known as “concrete jungles”. Architects were arguing for a return to the single family dwelling, and Sejima was exploring the possibilities offered by this architectural type. The Platform Houses were attempts to free the act of dwelling from the ground by elevating the floor until it floated in space. They also took bathrooms and bedrooms, which until then had been hidden on the back side, and brought them to the front of the architecture.
Kazuyo Sejima is an architect who inhabits the urban space of Tokyo.
In Tokyo it is no longer possible to delineate historical periods according to architectural style. The time is gone when a single style could be found at the apex of a period, with architects vying to perfect it. Instead, the creators of architecture pick and choose from a variety of styles, with difference creating value. Of course this is due partly to the fact that in the contemporary context there is very little that is technically impossible. But I believe that, in the contemporary city, the emergence of style is a result of the ability of the individual to express a stance towards power. I explain style as the logic of power in the consumer society. In the gigantic and constantly changing economic sphere of Tokyo, individuals need architectural styles in order to proclaim their own existence. The question that interests me, rather than whether or not sanaa’s minimalism is in tune with the spirit of the age, is whether their evident popularity is due to the ability of their style to better express the stance of individuals living in today’s giant urban societies. I believe that their architecture responds with agility to changes in the relations between individuals and giant cities, and that it is a precise description of the locations where space can be found in the city and in architecture.
I introduce the concepts of city and space because the word space has undergone a contemporary transformation in their writings and remarks. It seems possible to theorize that they have expanded the concept of space and rediscovered it as a redefining concept for the city. To develop this line of thought, I would like to examine the contextual differences in Eastern and Western views of city, beginning with the following quote from the competition proposal for the Dutch Parliament Building by Rem Koolhaas and OMA.
In this project the Binnenhof is seen as undergoing a permanent, slow-motion process of transformation in which democratic institutions invade and appropriate the feudal typology of the fortress. Only an architecture that is unapologetic about its modernity can preserve and articulate this tradition. In such an interpretation, all historic doctrines represent, in fact, interruptions or even obstructions of this transformation. According to this reading, the conquest of the Binnenhof is made final with the introduction of the new parliament, the architectural representation of the final push that creates a breach of modernity in the walls of the fortress.
This manifesto paints a picture of European cities as dense and evolving slowly over the years. In this thick context, architecture appears as a means to make a sharp break with the social structures of the past and replace them with contemporary ones. The opposite pole is occupied by the unspoken presence of the conservative tradition in modern architecture. The new faces off against the old under the rubric of revolutionary versus conservative. Compared to this European context, the Tokyo where Kazuyo Sejima lives is a gigantic economic infrastructure built on a foundation of consumerism, where everything – even space and time – is but one dimension of capitalism. There is no confrontation between new and old, because the axis of values that would make such a confrontation possible has been dissolved. New and old have become simply added values to be consumed. Therefore, it is possible to theorize that the originality of architectural style in Tokyo exists under a different form than elsewhere. Whereas European space is a question of mutually opposing value structures, space in Japan is a matter of signs. This has been pointed out by Roland Barthes and others. But looking deeper it is possible to abstract a design logic that lies hidden behind the veil of affective reactions, a logic which will also be helpful in predicting the course of the current trend toward regionalism.
Geometry and Transparency
In the early 1990s, Kazuyo Sejima realized a series of works in lightweight and flat industrial materials similar to those used in the Case Study Houses. In the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Museum large glass and metal plates imprinted with fine lettering were used to enfold the flat walls. The cladding wraps the small, pocket-like space in an osmotic membrane with complex folds in the spaces along the external walls (at the border between interior and exterior). The architect has carefully surrounded the rectangular museum with a space that resembles a fractal chain, comprised of attractive glass and metal plates with stylish, contemporary patterning. Sejima says that the inspiration for this project came partly from “the surroundings of the site, where the small houses scattered about between the beautiful hillside and the meadow seemed out of place”. When viewed from a distance, the museum resembles a black tape. Upon approaching closer, the visitor is enveloped in a fascinating architectural experience. This museum, with its many forms of closure, validates its formal originality by proposing a new relationship between the architecture and the exterior.
At the Multimedia Workshop the thin, curved roof spans the building lightly, looking as if it had been peeled from the ground. The studio program beneath it is half buried, giving a feeling of distance from everyday life. The plan shows a series of narrow corridors around the periphery of the studio program, recalling the traditional engawa style. In section, the spatial configuration appears to reverse top and bottom. The building, which won a prize in the Architectural Design Division from the Architectural Institute of Japan, is no longer used for its original purpose, perhaps due to the changing requirements of its users. But the experience of walking around these corridors is novel and almost poetic, as if one had discovered a space that no one had noticed before, one which belongs neither to Japan nor Europe.
An overview of the work of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa reveals an interesting approach to geometry. Even though it is contemporaneous with the postmodern period, the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa has always avoided eccentric or bizarre historical flourishes, preferring straightforward linear configurations. When stylistic transformations are required, the office still tends to avoid unusual topological shapes and select more conventional architectural volumes. This contrasts with the work of architects who take inspiration from the spatial logic of modern mathematics in their expressions of fluid contemporary spaces as nonlinear polygons and complex topographical shapes. To understand this difference, we need to clarify the location and social function of the power that wants to commercialize architecture, as art has been commercialized. Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa are critical of the experience of fluid space, but positively, in a way that allows them to find their own way to work with it. Concerning fluid space they say, “our existence is inseparable from the present, which is space and time.” There is also the evident connection between their work and contemporary themes.
In this context, it may be instructive to examine the frequently held opinion that the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa is transparent. As seen, for example, in the Farnsworth House of Mies van der Rohe, glass in modern architecture often appears under the aspect of continuity with nature. But in the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa, transparency is an operation that implies continuity with the city. In their architecture, transparent space is not a specific method used to express a concept according to general rules. It is handled rather as a means to enable the discovery that even small spaces can continue on toward a city brimming over with possibilities.
In conversation, Kazuyo Sejima stresses her conviction that it is not possible to achieve transparent spaces simply by using glass in the architecture. I understand this to mean that a space where transparency can be experienced is one that transforms our sense of the beautiful, similar to the way in which a new mode is established. This is borne out by the care they devote to studying the various types of processing applied to the glass surfaces that create the surprisingly transparent spaces in their work. The primary raison d’etre of glass as a material is its transparency, which keeps us from perceiving the borders of space. But the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa frequently employs pattern printing and mirror finishes to creates spaces with blurred borders. Examples include projects such as the Saishunkan Women’s Dormitory, the Koga Park Cafe, and the Naoshima Ferry Terminal, where the solid structural members have a mirror finish that makes them disappear visually. The rhetoric of transparency is developed in the Kinbasha Pachinko Parlor where a large volume is lifted up into the air and made to reflect the cityscape with its colorful neon signage. This treats visitors to the surprise of discovering the city in a corner of the architecture. Furthermore, at the residence of a well-known poet in central Tokyo, where the entire building is half buried, as if designed to elude detection, a unique spatial experience is achieved with a single pane of glass, making it appear as if someone were suddenly about to materialize in the central court. Also in Tokyo, the Omotesando Dior store utilizes thick layers of transparent materials, including glass which has undergone a surface treatment designed to provide a distorting effect. This could be called a visual representation of the way in which mode disrupts the uniformly modern texture of contemporary cities. The moiré pattern on the glass walls of the Mutsukawa Daycare Center in Yokohama is another experiment that attempts to make visible the mutability of the contemporary city, providing a fresh surprise for the elderly visitors to the center.
As a theme, transparency in architecture extends even to projects that utilize very little glass. In the design process for the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art a great deal of effort was expended on the alternative proposal, which – in stark contrast to the built proposal – utilized a drastically reduced amount of glass. The same is true of the IVAM extension in Valencia, which sheathes the existing museum in a thin, lightweight, perforated metal skin. This strategy of repackaging the old in the new is intended to relate the spatial experience to the effects achieved in the thermal environment, allowing visitors to experience a borderless threshold. In all of these projects, the transparency of the space derives from experiential aspects in addition to visual impressions. With this approach, the office is exploring ways to create architecture that gives light expression to the border between interior and exterior.
Urbanism in Architecture
The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is located in Kanazawa, a provincial city with some of the best-preserved traditional architecture in Japan. Together with curator Yuko Hasegawa, sanaa proposed a potentially groundbreaking mode of operation for institutions dedicated to art. This was in response to criticism of the museum as institution, which has become increasing vocal since the late 1970s. Artists of that time were vehement in denouncing what they perceived as the domination of art by the power structure of society. Museums in particular came under fire as symbols of that power. The architects responded by skillfully locating the library, cafeteria, and other elements of the public program in the same building as the museum but making them accessible without fees. Inside the museum, doors are placed at convenient points along the circulation to enable flexible scheduling of variously sized exhibitions at the same time.
In terms of form the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is a large circle containing cubes arranged on a grid. The thresholds are materialized as arcs of highly transparent glass, almost 6 meters in height. These are intended to minimize the visually perceptible border between the interior and the city. Since the arcs have very large radii, the museum when seen from a distance appears to consist of cubes of different heights on the thin glass sheath at their base. From closer up, various smaller spaces become visible, looking like an urban landscape. These architectural perspectives lend a strong sense of presence to the museum and provide intimations that something wonderful is happening inside.
By importing the city into the museum, the architects have relaxed the strained relationship between public, art, and museum. In response to the argument that the public does not (and cannot) participate in the social geometry of art, the 21st Century Museum provides what I think is an extremely precise answer. To me, it seems that it redirects the criticisms leveled against existing museums to apply rather to a functionalism that has run out of inspiration. Instead of being mesmerized by direct associations of means to end, this museum is a stimulating space rich in inspiration, one that invites a wide range of reactions.
The visitor to the 21st Century Museum is surrounded by white space. The walls of the exhibition rooms are pure white, as are the ceilings and floors. Natural light penetrates the glass facade and is reflected by the interior, to the point where the corridors can give the impression of having wandered into an overexposed photo. Against the pure white background and abundant back lighting of the circulation areas, visitors to the museum appear in sharp but strangely mysterious outline. The acts of entering and leaving the exhibition rooms and activities in the library and cafeteria are exaggerated. In this kind of encounter with art, one cannot help but be reminded of the reactions of people in the city when they suddenly encounter something beautiful. The architecture of Kazuyo Sejima is seen at its best in this kind of scenario, where people are experiencing a specific space. It is the instant when the space of the architecture and the space of the city become one and the same.
Let us take a closer look at their architecture as mediated by this idea. I would like to draw attention to the following point: Kazuyo Sejima is especially interested in what I call urban actors, people who maneuver in the city, who live in the dynamism of the urban economy. To actors, architectural space is an expression of a stance vis-à-vis the power of the urban establishment. Actors acquire their own bodily identity through modes, and they use modes to realize their own space. They create their own scenes and discover spaces in which to celebrate the sequence of their bodily activities and touch off incidents that manifest their values in a succinctly gratifying way. In a fairly obvious sense This is also a counterattack against the existing power structure which created cities because it needed them. The power structure has a triangular configuration, consisting of capital, consumers, and suppliers, in which by default the roles of the three actors are fixed. But urban actors have upset the balance through an endless series of incidents that reinterpret fashion and identity. In doing so, actors rewrite the city in a variety of different ways. Actors assert their own reasons for being and insert themselves as actors via operations on modes. They transform the urban structure of power into a more relaxed quadrilateral configuration. This is the reason why actors are so capable of active participation in the urban experience.
To actors, the city is not a place to passively accept the codes created by capital and the media. Instead, it is a place, in the gaps that exist beyond the reach of politics and corporations. It is a place where they can act freely of their own volition. Of course they are aware that the capital-driven culture of Tokyo always needs new fashion. But they utilize this situation in reverse, discovering gaps left while corporations and the fashion industry are busy reinventing the top-down structure and showing that there is pleasure to be had in creating spaces by creating modes, inserting freedom, and freely creating values.
Naturally capital then attempts to exploit this dazzling series of incidents. Capital provides a new fashion industry to consumers, which is then promptly transformed by urban actors into a new mode of temptation for capital.
What I would like to point out here is that Kazuyo Sejima is interested in the way in which urban actors utilize the city to construct their value systems, meaning that they are inseparable from the city. As an architect, she begins from this precisely recognized point and uses it to derive new spaces.
I refer to this operation as maneuvering in the city. Although it may not be philosophically self conscious, I believe that that the act of establishing one’s own spatial system is a courageous one. With respect to this point, I would like to recall the ambitions of contemporary European architects for European cities, to which I referred earlier in this article. I think that sanaa have noticed that there is a considerable difference between the European concept of the city and the spatial system of Tokyo.
My point is that Kazuyo Sejima’s architectural philosophy is rooted in the experience of urban actors who maneuver in the city. The space and time inhabited by urban actors is not a physical space enclosed by walls and ceilings, rather it is a phenomenon of their imagination. It is the phenomenon of the city as created and experienced in the mind from moment to moment. By no means are they engaged in constructing new physical spaces.
The urban actors who maneuver in the city of Tokyo have discovered and expressed modes, but have never realized them physically. As an architect, Kazuyo Sejima has pursued with great precision the goal of taking that discovery and recreating it as realized architectural space. By continually incorporating the latest modes, she has made it possible for a larger number of people to share and enjoy the pleasures of maneuvering in the city. Through this practice, she aims at an architecture that expands the concept of space. Therefore, she is interested above all in the question of how architecture can mediate between the fissures of large cities, which exist only in the statements and perspective of urban actors, and concrete architectural space. Her architecture recognizes that “to the individual, urban space and the individual self are inseparable and indispensable” and asks how this theme can be materialized as actual space. The kind of space demanded by urban actors is a transparent space without barriers, one which makes it possible to communicate their axis of values. Hence it is entirely clear why she has chosen the theme of architecture that is like “an island of freedom floating in the city”.
The work of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa gives the impression that “architecture is white”. But in the following I would like to look at it from a slightly larger perspective within the framework of modern architecture, namely within the context of the period immediately after the primarily historicist current of postmodernism had passed over our cities, to be followed by the revival of the abstract style called deconstructivism. This temporal perspective reveals interesting references to formalism in the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa.
Manifestations of formalist architecture in the late 1970s included the large public housing projects that were called “new towns” by their proponents and “concrete jungles” by their detractors. Although they were efficient and functional, they were rejected by the public as cramped, monotonous, and restrictive. The response of postmodernism in Japan was to refocus away from large-scale collective housing and toward small family dwellings. This was accompanied by criticism of modern functionalism, which was accused of producing uniformly international architecture that dissolved individuality into abstraction. To break through this status quo, historicism advocated a patchwork of historical styles that would at least be fun, in place of the colorless, odorless asepticism of modernism. This implied a shift in the social role of the architect. In place of the direct contributions to the progress of society that were expected of the modernists, the postmodernists were expected to be capable of helping to realize regional societies that would be differentiated by virtue of symbolism and individuality.
It is fair to say that architects, including Kazuyo Sejima, who began their careers during this postmodern phase were part of the process that was attempting to deconstruct the functionalist philosophy, and that the ways in which they left the postmodernist orbit set by Arata Isozaki had a decisive influence on their development as postmodern architects. At precisely this juncture, architects from the Netherlands took up the modernist style again in a sophisticated new way that was intended to liberate space from the tyranny of fixed purpose and put it at the disposal of unstructured action.
Their view of program was informed by a renewed appreciation of the multiplicity of human activity. In opposition to a fossilized formalism, a stream in which functionalism turned in upon itself, they regarded program as an opportunity to once again create spaces that would be open to diversity. They were driven to design spaces filled with surprising experiences that seem to turn the hierarchical relationship between general rule and specific example on its head. In place of the collusion between architecture and function brought forward by postmodernism, Kazuyo Sejima rewrote the design methodology of functionalism to instead connect architecture with pleasure. This connection between function and the enjoyment of diversity allowed the design of architectural space to regain its autonomy, underpinned by an attitude of respect for the diversity of human endeavor.
If this is so, then it seems possible to call this attitude critical functionalism, and to say that the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima is a critical manifesto directed against functionalism.
Sejima once remarked that “I want to see what happens when you say something completely normal but take it as far as it will go.” This is a pronouncement that she wants to create new kinds of architectural space by critical reflection, starting with a state of normal functionality and paying close attention to its sculptural form, or taking an urbanistic approach and considering spaces that would invite unexpected activities.
This approach has been very carefully thought out. Architecture with an extremely exaggerated program does nothing more than surprise, without affording the opportunity to discover transparent space. Unlike the masters of modernism, who started from the premise that houses are machines for living and set out to prove it through their work, the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima plays with the idea that there is pleasure in the discovery of exceptions. Intermixed in this paradigm is the pursuit of the kind of spatial experiences that occur when the architecture coincides for a moment with the dazzling potential of the city. Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa use such ideas to unlock and deconstruct conventional functionalism and drive their architecture toward further deformations.
A circular plan was adopted for the outer walls at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa because: “This museum is located right at the center of its city block. We wanted it to be accessible from anywhere, without having a front entrance.” This is precisely equivalent to a proclamation that that the architects wanted to carry out a functional redefinition of geometry as a force to reconstitute the city. The exterior form of the architecture is not a symbol of power. It has been redefined as a social function that invites visitors to participate in a multidirectional activity. Until now, functionalism has operated on architectural form by way of quotes from cars and other machines. But the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa follows from the trust that she places in the city of Tokyo. The architecture of critical functionalism aims to stimulate the multiplicity of human activity, touching off a series of diverse events.
Another of Kazuyo Sejima’s remarks is worth examining. With regard to the process of converting the brief into architecture, she says that “I like the space to be related but independent. I get uncomfortable when it fits the brief too exactly.” This is a counterargument directed against the attitude of one-dimensional functionalists; perhaps it is a reflection of the architect’s nervousness over the prospect of becoming a slave to the rules.
The popularity of the white architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa in Japan can be explained by pointing out that it responds with agility to the changing requirements of society. Rejecting radically logical approaches, it is approachable and easy to assimilate, a marvelous renewal of modern architecture as simply “normal architecture”. It easily and pragmatically clears the troublesome controversies that pervade the contemporary architectural scene, and as a result gains the ability to realize liberated spaces.
At a time when postmodern buildings are going up everywhere around the world, Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa have always chosen architecture without ornament. Nowhere in their writings or statements is there any explanation of the reason why their architecture is white. The whiteness may be partly a strategy to protect their intentions from becoming scattered, a result of organizing the architectural form so that only the essential spaces are expressed. But the main reason is that the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima is about space, not about the building. The walls are left empty because the intention is to permit free use of the space. The whiteness of their architecture is a message to the effect that there is nothing dogmatic about it.
This constitutes another reason why their architecture can be called critical functionalism. It also explains why the lightweight allure of their work has proven so attractive in Europe, despite the current reevaluation of heavy, traditional architecture. It seems fair to say that functionalist architecture in Europe finds itself in a critical situation similar to that in Japan. Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa are important as they have developed an approach that links functionalism and mode, liberating architecture from dogma and establishing for the first time a methodology of critical functionalism.
Repeated conversations with Kazuyo Sejima left the impression that the architectural scene in Japan provides a relatively unique platform for discussions among architects, as opposed to theorists. The proliferation of styles is underpinned by an intense dialog between practicing architects. Specifically, architects themselves clarify the thinking behind their designs through interviews and theoretical contributions to journals such as Shinkenchiku and 10+1. They provide systematic explanations of their motivation to engage in the practice of architecture, via both styles and texts. I would like to point out that a kind of collective text has emerged through the repetition of these interactions. In the 1980s, for example, architects such as Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima became interested in the urban culture of young girls, inspiring others to look there for new directions in architecture. A certain tolerance for this kind of exploration exists in Japan, allowing architects to pursue their philosophical interests with relative freedom and encouraging the formulation of architectural proposals that accord with those ways of thinking. This attitude on the part of the establishment may be due to the influence of postmodernism and its gospel of pleasure, which coincidentally arrived at the same time as the bubble economy. Or, more likely, it may stem from the relatively old Japanese tendency to regard architecture as a kind of fashion.
It is well known that Kazuyo Sejima began her career in the office of Toyo Ito, in the late 1980s. In his architecture she discovered a specific way for architects to relate to the city. At this time Ito classified architecture together with the folk culture produced by large cities, and produced the series of works known as “wind architecture”. In his view, power and culture in the massive city of Tokyo were the creations of highly developed capitalism, and contemporary architecture became possible when the architect was able to deliver manipulations of this power. Amid the explosive growth experienced by Tokyo during the bubble economy of the 1980s, Ito was searching for a new form of architectural expression. In the contemporary city, he thought, styles that are closed to the city are not very realistic expressions of the relationship between people and their physical environment. Instead, he thought that the circle could be closed by a relationship that was permeable toward the city but controllable, like an osmotic membrane. He thought this could be embodied in the form of vague spaces covered with transient, permeable membranes. He designed architecture with sheathes of materials like aluminum, which enveloped the spaces as clothes envelop the body.
I bring up the idea of critical functionalism in this context because in conversations with Kazuyo Sejima I was always conscious of the experience of architecture and the realization of space. In this theoretical exploration of their work I raise this theme of the realization of space as, through these discussions, it became quite clear that she prefers not to work in the top-down direction. The very idea of top-down seems foreign to her architecture. Instead she regards the architecture as a specific space for a specific brief, one that affords a specific experience. I have mentioned how, as a designer, instead of taking the exterior form as the starting point of her own experience, she begins by establishing spatial units and studying the experiences to be had there. She says that “The goal is not to establish a universally valid method. The important thing is to be precise in approaching each problem as it comes up.” This means that her approach to the problems of experiencing (and realizing) space are bottom-up.
In particular, I have recently become aware that the realization of flat spaces has been a consistent theme in the work of Kazuyo Sejima. It arises at a number of levels, from the way materials are joined to room types and circulation. By extension, I think it can be regarded as a controlling concept that has consistently informed their methodology. Large-scale projects such as the Gifu Kitagata Apartment Building and the Novartis Campus are good examples. At the opposite extreme from the physical depth and height of the buildings, the qualities “thin and flat” are consciously manipulated to enable new forms of transparent expression.
On the occasion of this symposium, I wanted to see whether these discoveries can be formulated as knowledge. To clarify difference in the contexts that have enabled the careers of three architects, I have concentrated on how the architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa is related to the urban culture of Japan. I do this to throw light on the theme of how to relativize the dispersed trends in contemporary architectural design. Through two years of conversations with Kazuyo Sejima, beginning in 2005, I noticed that she approaches architectural design on the level of spatial experience. Also that this method makes it possible to handle individual spaces either as closed units or as parts of a larger open space; both are aspects of a single continuum. This approach is common to large projects like the EPFL Learning Center in Lausanne (currently ongoing) and small ones like the House in a plum grove. I think that in the final analysis one can ask how the properties of architectural space – properties such as function, transparency, and program, which have important throughout the modern period – have been assimilated in their methodology. Further, they are manifested not as an abstract symbolic system but rather as specific modes, almost like piece of clothing.
Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa´s work has received favorable resonance around the world. She continues to rewrite her methodology with each new project. This has never been an abstract, logical method for producing architecture inspired by philosophy or postmodernism; rather it is a specific, practical methodology that aims to increase the degree of freedom in architecture. In my view, the fact that their work has been favorably received around the world is evidence that their designs are effective and lead to valid results. If this is recognized, it could have consequences for the world in which we live: Perhaps we will become able to assess the abstract obstacles that face us in a more objective manner. Perhaps we will be encouraged to study questions related to freedom until we are sure that we understand them -- and then we can act to change the world, working to remove obstacles in order to point the world in the direction of greater tolerance. If we assume that our architecture is able to discover spaces where problems on that lofty plane are solved, or provide some assistance in achieving that great goal, then I think we will have found that Kazuyo Sejima and sanaa´s methods for realizing architecture are useful and meaningful for society as a whole.
November 9, 2007
Architecture of Mode
In my practice I am looking for a way to form/design architecture in a bottom-up process, which, in it´s true form, is exceptional in architecture. This process was originally mentioned by Andrea Branzi of Archizoom. In his manifest stating that contemporary society is a network of consumption, supply and design, Branzi highlighted the blue jeans phenomenon. He discovered that completely divergent youth cultures, such as hippies, existentialists, Hispanics, Teddy Boys, beatniks, and rock and rollers, had discovered their own way of wearing blue jeans. The same garment was remodeled by its consumers to fit their mode of being.
I observe that Sejima is not aiming at a ‘manifesto discontinuity’ of her own works; in contrast tothe modernist architects in the 20th century in their instigations towards the 19th century scene SANAA projects are not an abrupt break from the architectural styles of the recent past. Rather SANAA scrutinizes and alters the look of architecture until it becomes fresh. SANAA architecture is about making what was previously unfit wearable. Their wish is to celebrate reduced space and to cherish the experiences of it´s inventive uses. We can say that SANAA rethinks architecture, just as youth-culture remodels the wearing of jeans, to such an extent that the look of the space pronounces its uniqueness.
In this context I introduce the key word ‘mode’ to this discourse on the architecture of SANAA. This word forms a key to understanding the profile of SANAA among other contemporary architects. 'Mode' is the only parameter that SANAA handles in order to refresh the space-model in the current process of spatial production, let us call it the "era of assembly". By using 'mode' as the method, one tailors spaces from the bottom up. Sejima states that SANAA architecture is constituted part by part, avoiding the top-down process which works from a principle to detail. SANAA refreshes the spatial impression by remodeling architectural elements: housing units become very shallow, a thick wall becomes thin like paper, a column is slimmed down to it´s limit, separation becomes translucent, and doors turn into a folding wall as they are extended in height; all of these changes proceed side-by-side during the design process, and thus an obsolete spatial impression is rejuvenated.
This concept of wearable modernity is exactly what I should like to express with the word MODE concerning her architecture. Likewise, it is useful to remember that we adjust the functionality of all electronic appliances to suit our comfort. The word and my intention share the same origin.
In this context it is striking to remember another statement made by an architect on this equation of garments-architecture. In his 1911 essay "Architecture", Adolf Loos said that "many architects found it surprising that I should talk about architects by comparing them to tailors." This may indicate that he regarded fashion and architecture as a single thing: Sejima might agree with Loos here, and certainly I do.