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Established by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa in 1995, Japanese firm SANAA has since become a leading force of the twenty first century architectural scene. It is with a quiet confidence that the duo has swept the world off its feet with their distinctly minimalist, highly sensitive and thoughtful designs. SANAA’s extensive portfolio includes the playfully stacked building of the New Museum in New York, the circular production facility of the Vitra Campus, as well as the serene Louvre-Lens in France.
Kazuyo Sejima, the feminine half of the internationally acclaimed designer duo, was born in 1956. She studied Architecture in Tokio where, after receiving her degree, she started working for the office of Toyo Ito. Not long after, Sejima opened her own studio. In 1992 she was named the Japan Institute of Architects’ Young Architect of the Year. One of the first people she employed in her practice was Ryue Nishizawa. Born in 1966, he graduated with a Master’s degree in Architecture at the Yokohama National University. As a student, Nishizawa had also worked for Toyo Ito, where he met Sejima. After working together for several years, the two formed the partnership Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates, or SANAA as it is known today.
Aside from Sejima’s current architectural practice with her partner, she is active in academia, teaching at multiple universities worldwide. Nishizawa has maintained his own firm, Office of Ryue Nishizawa, parallel to SANAA since 1997. Both take on small-scale individual projects outside of their partnership. However, they join forces to work on more ambitious tasks for which they have become synonymous.
Even in their earliest projects in Japan, their distinctive style manifested itself with a clarity that is both easily defined and misinterpreted. Their signature understated white spaces are stripped of any elaborations that may deter the user from the goal: to activate and encourage them to interact with their surroundings. SANAA uses transparency and abstraction not as a means to a purely minimalist end, but rather as blank canvas for a social call to action and personalization of space. It is the absence of material expression that can be considered the ultimate expressive quality of their designs.
Their works don’t consider the genius loci in a conventional, physical sense. Instead, they draw from the immaterial essence of contemporary life. Whether stacked or horizontal, fluid or rectilinear, the luminous forms of SANAA’s buildings encapsulate the buzzing programs of the interior, being described as “three-dimensional collectors of activities”. The “white box” architecture of SANAA primarily serves to frame the life going on inside it.
Thus, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa brings to fruition the concept of a city within a city, encasing dozens of smaller, rectangular volumes within a transparent circular frame. The result: a space of free circulation between zones of concentrated programs, connected to its natural surroundings. For this project, SANAA received a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. On Tokio’s fashionable Omotesando Avenue, the Dior store envisioned by SANAA in 2001 stands among other luxury fashion houses designed by the likes of Toyo Ito, Herzog & de Meuron and MVRDV. A deft balance of tension was created by simple and elegant means. A second skin of translucent acrylic is offset from the glass outer skin. SANAA’s serene milky-white exterior gives little evidence of the opulent interior world of haute couture – the architects’ solution to the two dramatically different visions.
Arguably one of the most architecturally poetic designs which illustrates SANAA’s focus on humanity and user interaction is the Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland. Though rectangular in plan, the two undulating, perforated slabs that define the floor and ceiling of the building give a fluid quality to the space. Different programs are separated solely by these slopes, without physical barriers, allowing the user to move freely around the space. The Rolex foresees an era of imagined spaces, defined by social interactions instead of walls. Places of movement and change that parallel the ever-changing needs of society.
The 2000’s have seen SANAA also delve into furniture and object design to accompany their buildings. Though a relatively compact assortment of designs ranging from seating to tableware, they exhibit an abundance of fun. SANAA’s finds the main source of inspiration in animals and nature.
For their museum in Kanazawa, the duo designed a raindrop-shaped aluminum chair, aptly named the Drop Chair. Also found scattered throughout the museum is SANAA’s Nextmaruni armless chair, designed with variations in shape, size and color. Each has a charmingly distinctive “rabbit ear” form. The playful design was initially produced in natural birch for Japanese firm Maruni. Following the success of the chair, it has since been expanded to a wider collection. The designs were commissioned as part of the Nextmaruni project which aspires “to produce chairs which have been born from the Japanese aesthetic”, thus engaging in a “dialogue with the Japanese culture”. The architects have also collaborated with Vitra on a petal shaped bench for public spaces.
More than one collaboration with Italian houseware company Alessi has also brought a range of objects designed by SANAA to the market. Alessi boasts a long history of working with world renowned designers and architects. Phillipe Starck, Ettore Sottsass and Zaha Hadid to name a few. In 2010, SANAA designed a tea service, storage tins and a tray, which make up the Fruit Basket Family. Produced in a sleek stainless steel, the individual pieces are all shaped like apples and pears. Slightly lopsided, but incredibly endearing. The collection is another example of the way in which SANAA adds a natural touch to their industrial, minimalist aesthetic. A year later, they returned to work with Alessi on a watch. The vibrant polyurethane design named Neko was created to look like a cat curled around a user’s wrist.
Also in 2010, Sejima set the tone for the prestigious Venice Architecture Biennale with the theme People Meet in Architecture. A phrase as simple as can be, it marks culmination of her architectural thought, with which SANAA’s designs have quietly pervaded both densely populated metropolises and tranquil landscapes over the decades. It does away with concepts of overworked originality or personal expression and cuts straight to what she considers to be the essence of design. Ultimately, it is the human experience which matters the most. A crystal clear message that design is for the people.
SANAA’s work has emphatically reflected the idea that a building is not completed until it is inhabited. Some might regard the “white box” as unremarkable, sterile or even banal. But for others, it can truly be considered an elevated art form to create new spatial experiences with such a refined simplicity, ultimately changing our perception of what architecture is, or should be. SANAA’s is an architecture of subdued elegance, not distracting from, but instead elevating the very thing essential to a building – the life it houses and nurtures.
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