Sunday, March 28, 2010

Have you heard the one about SANAA winning the Pritzker?

Unless you've been on the dark side of the moon all day (and probably even there, unless you've got AT&T), you've no doubt heard by now that Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the duo who make up SANAA, have been awarded the 2010 Pritzker Prize. Apparently, despite what Joe Rosa and Bob Somol told you, Europeans don't have a monopoly on path breaking architecture. (And if you compare SANAA's Serpentine Pavilion from last year to the wildly dysfunctional Hadid Burnham Pavilion in Millennium Park, you can see the kind of quality we could have insisted on, but didn't.)

In an interview with designboom, Sejima resisted citing specific architectural influences, while Nishizawa named the holy trinity of Mies, Le Corbu and Neimeyer, "These are an unforgettable 'trio' for me." Seijima talks about "our interest now is more how to organise ‘a program’ within a building - the layout of rooms and how people move inside. but also how to keep a relationship between the ‘program’ and the outside and then how the outside fits to the surroundings. in each project we have different requirements and the site is different, we try to find our way.," and this appears to be very clear in their recent projects.

There will be an orgy of pontification now that the award has been announced. As I'm seldom let out of the house, I've yet to experience any of SANAA's work firsthand, so I'll restrict myself to couple of cursory observations. . .

The first thing that strikes me about Sejima and Nishizawa's work is how, at the same time, they embrace and subvert that Miesian legacy. (Apologies in advance for the music in these videos - turn down your volume now.)

At roofline and plinth of the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, the building is a rounded square that defines the basic container, but in between, there doesn't appear to be a single right angle. SANAA addresses individual programs in a series of mostly discrete spaces that can be rectangular, circular or elliptical,. They float within a thin - as little as a meter - ether of separation, and a long snaking foyer and forking exhibition space. The use of glass walls both for the perimeter and the interior, combined with several open air galleries, mediate between transparent, reflective, and opaque. In place of Miesian universal space, you have the specificity of full partitioning, but with an "almost nothing" twist.

The second thing that struck me by looking at the official SANAA photos included in the Pritzker Prize press kit is the emphasis they place on how their work appears in context - not just the context of adjacent structures, but in the wide-angle context of the surrounding community. It's in no way a literal contextualism, a mimicking of surrounding elements, but a more intuitive sense of place. In the case of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in lower Manhattan, the stacked boxes seem a witty riff on the city's congestion and early wedding cake skyscrapers. In the case of the museum in Toledo, a medium density city, it's providing a graceful, low-rise anchor to the mix of parking lots, midrises and even taller trees all around it.

Sejima and Nishizawa will receive their award May 17th on Ellis Island, where they'll be held in protective custody until they can be vetted by the DHS.

A side note of this year's award is that the Pritzker Prize website, since its inception up to a year or so ago an abomination of bad design that seemed to be mocking the prize's mission, is now a pretty professional job, including putting up the press kits as those so-trendy on-line magazines where you actually see and hear (loudly) the pages being turned. (Although there are still rough edges like badly wrapping values in one of the drop-down menus.)

You can also visit the SANAA website, which is Mies minimalist to the extreme - a single page with just six lines of text, consisting entirely of contact information.
portrait photo by Takashi Okamoto, building photographs by Hisao Suzuki,
courtesy SANAA


Andrew Patner said...

Bravo, Lynn -- cross-posting this with abandon starting . . . NOW!

Anonymous said...

New Museum of Contemporary Art, witty? Contextual? Really?

Lynn Becker said...

thanks so much for being able to reveal with only three words of empty sarcasm what all the admirers of this building have been totally blind to. I think I can pare down your word count even further. commentaries of this ilk require and merit only one: meh.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for sounding so sarcastic. It just felt good at the time. Seriously though. I know that neighborhood and the description of "contextual" is really not appropriate. If you want to say the building speaks to you in a special way, then ok, we are all entitled to our opinions. But until architects can truly design infill structures in older cities that are forward-looking yet good neighbors, I will continue to be disappointed. If you explore European cities where architects have been "infilling" for centuries with a wide variety of styles, you find more often than not a family of buildings that are harmonious, not jarring. One easy example is Guimard's Parisian projects that fit comfortably in between more traditional buildings, but still are exquisitely modern and idiosyncratic.

Anonymous said...

Lynn, I'm waiting for a reply. Besides "meh"

Lynn Becker said...

sorry, I've been kind of swamped. I do appreciate your expanded comments greatly and I hope to response this evening. Thanks again.