The Anti-Libeskinds

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The 2010 Pritzker Award winners, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, partners in the Japanese architectural firm Sanaa, have completed only two buildings in the US: the New Museum in New York, a sculptural stack of rectilinear boxes, which was completed in 2007, and a glass pavilion for the Toledo Museum of Art, completed in 2006 (above). Despite this slender output so far, among American critics Sejima and Nishizawa have emerged as the anti-Libeskinds. Their geometric forms are self-effacing and accessible, yet they exude a Dwell Magazine-like cool. 

Sanaa buildings are invariably beautiful, an eternal verity in architecture. They have emerged from a construction environment that, until recently, has stressed bland, transient structures. Land in Japan is staggeringly expensive, particularly in Tokyo, so buildings can often seem like an afterthought. Obsolescence can start setting in after a decade. The constant turnover of buildings employs thousands of architects, all of whom are designing the same building over and over again: the anonymous tower housing a faceless corporate bureaucracy. Tokyo’s buildings only come alive after dark, when corporate brands are illuminated in neon and LCD lights.

However, by the mid-1990s the so-called atelier architects began to land some prestigious commissions outside Japan. Corporate procurement departments in Japan started to notice, so gradually high-end Japanese architects began designing elegant buildings with organic, lightweight structures, which had conveyed a sense of “Japaneseness” to Western clients. In effect, the Japanese were importing a version of their own culture. (A similar phenomenon occurred in Japanese cinema in the 1950s, when the most “Japanese” directors were those that were initially more popular in foreign markets.) Besides Sanaa, atelier architects with reputations outside Japan include Yoshio Taniguchi, who redesigned the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Fumihiko Maki & Associates, who designed Tower 4 at Ground Zero.

Sejima and Nishizawa may create delicate glass boxes–they are to glass what Tadao Ando is to cement–but that doesn’t mean they create garden ornaments. After all, the New Museum is in the Bowery, and their latest major commission has a Bilbao-like mission to lend sexiness to a run down industrial city. Sanaa is working on a 300,000-square-foot branch of the Louvre in Lens, a city in northern France that one travel guide book bluntly describes as “known for absolutely nothing.” Soon it will be known for its museum by Sejima and Nishizawa. 

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