Space connection

Space connection

Different strokes

Space connection

In 2010, Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima (born 1956) became the first woman to direct the Architecture sector of the Venice Biennale. “The 21st century has just started,” she reflected on the occasion. “Many radical changes are taking place.

In such a rapid-changing context, can architecture clarify new values and a new lifestyle for the present? Hopefully, this show will be a chance to experience the manifold possibilities of architecture, as well as to account for its plurality of approaches, each one of them being a different way of living.”

The theme of the biennale — People Meet in Architecture — in many ways reflected what Sejima (and Ryue Nishizawa, her partner at the architecture practice SANAA) thought about architecture. “Basically, all of our projects try to create an atmosphere for people. We have said before that we try to make architecture that feels like a park. This has to do with making an atmosphere that can be experienced and used in many ways. It can be grand or it can be intimate.”

Founded in 1995, SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) has, over the years, planned, designed and executed some path-breaking projects across the world. Its international portfolio includes prestigious museums, university buildings, fashion houses, exhibition pavilions, shops, offices and housing projects.

SANAA’s innovative approach and meticulous arrangement have received wide critical and popular acclaim. The partnership came into limelight in 2004 when the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, designed by SANAA, won the hugely sought-after Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale.

It was indeed SANAA’s first major public building, and one which defined its future direction. Located in the very centre of Kanazawa city, it had begun with the concept of an ‘open’ museum which would cater not only to art professionals and experts, but also to general public at large.

“We proposed a museum without a front or back so that people could enter freely from any direction. We also thought carefully about its effect on the surroundings and the relationship of the building with its context, because of the historical background of the region. When the building was completed and we saw that people enjoyed using the museum, we truly realised how wonderful it is for architecture to be ‘open’. A great deal of our aims became more obvious to us because of this museum.”

Circular in form with a diameter of 113 metres, the Kanazawa Museum focused not only on the main exhibition hall, but also zones for people to interact viz café-restaurants, meeting rooms, library, theatre, lecture hall, and even a nursery and day-care facility. Thanks to the unique design elements which included corridors, passageways and glass peripherals, visitors could see deep into the central core, and penetrate the exhibition zone. With such a structure in place, the museum became a hub of activity at all times of the day, attracting visitors of all ages — from preschoolers, teenage art students, office workers, young mothers to old-age pensioners.

The Golden Lion award was followed by several others for SANAA. Five years ago, Sejima and Nishizawa won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize (often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture). The jury citation on their selection summed up their architectural practice: “For architecture that is simultaneously delicate and powerful, precise and fluid, ingenious but not overly or overtly clever; for the creation of buildings that successfully interact with their contexts and the activities they contain, creating a sense of fullness and experiential richness; for a singular architectural language that springs from a collaborative process that is both unique and inspirational; for their notable completed buildings and the promise of new projects together, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are the recipients of the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize.”

Full house

Sejima, who was named the Young Architect of the Year in Japan way back in 1992 and has taught at Princeton University, the Polytechnique de Lausanne, Tama Art University and Keio University, was recently in Bengaluru to address a gathering of architects, students and general public.

Invited by MASA (Malnad Architecture Student Association), she presented a bird’s-eye view of her work through nine projects executed by SANAA during the last 10 years. The 80-odd minute presentation kept the packed auditorium of NIMHANS Convention Centre spellbound.

Among others, Sejima’s lecture touched on SANAA’s groundbreaking efforts such as: The Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland (a highly innovative building spread over one single fluid space of 20,000 sq metres with gentle slopes, terraces and complex curving roof providing a seamless network of services, social spaces, spaces to study, and beautiful outdoor spaces); The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (which rises 174 feet above street level and appears as a stack of six boxes with delicate and filmy, softly shimmering exterior); The Louvre-Lens in France (the Musée du Louvre’s new sister gallery featuring a 360-metre-long chain of cuboidal glass and aluminium galleries that house a permanent art collection as well as temporary exhibitions); and the Grace Farms parkland project (a sinuous 83,000-square-foot, $67 million building called The River, set on 80 acres of open space in tony, architecturally-exceptional New Canaan, Connecticut, USA).

In each of these projects the Japanese architects had explored the ideas of lightness and transparency, found ways to make a building reflect its location and natural surroundings, and continually pushed the boundaries of their concepts to new extremes. “Architecture is not just about solving problems,” said Sejima. “It is going beyond the obvious, developing processes and expanding the functions of the building — be it a museum, a learning centre, or a housing project.”

Emphasising the need to develop an organic relationship between different spaces and their functions, she proposed that every space could be independent yet connected. “Each space has a different character. For instance, a library has to be silent and somber, while a café has to be lively. It is necessary to provide an organic continuity between individual spaces, as also between the building and the surrounding environment, the people, and their activities.”