SANAA are a Japanese practice based in Tokyo and led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Both architects have their own practice for smaller scale domestic projects but come together as SANAA for larger international projects. The pair were awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2010. Their complete projects include the Rolex Learning centre in Switzerland, the Louvre Lens in France, and the New Museum in New York.
Before architecture school we hadn’t heard of SANAA. A first year project asked us to produce a report on a given architect/practice and present it to the rest of the year. Initially the project felt one that we just needed to tick the boxes and get out of the way, but that quickly changed when I (SE) went to the library and picked up to book about their 2009 Serpentine Pavilion. Up to this point I didn’t really ‘get’ minimalism, or the depth of thought surrounding reflective surfaces. As each of our group shared their findings on the Tokyo architects we all began to sense that we were discovering something important, and we really wanted to show that in out presentation. We looked at which of their buildings we could visit. The only ones in Europe at the time were Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, the Zollverein School of Management and Design, Almere Theatre (which it turned out we’d visited a couple of months earlier without realising), and the brand new Louvre Lens. Less than a week later I was walking on the polished concrete floors of the Louvre Lens, just days after it had opened to the public. I wandered around inside the shiny boxes for hours, moving between the glass blobs, trying to photograph things that can’t be photographed.
The feeling I got from moving through the light, simple, minimal forms is still one of the most dreamlike architectural experiences I have known. It comes back to me every time I see a SANAA project online or in a magazine, and it’s something I’ve strived for in every design of my own to some degree or another.
It’s only after years of trying to squeeze a bit of SANAA into my designs that I realised you can’t just have a bit of SANAA. Their designs more than anything are about purity, rather than stylistic minimalism. There is no compromise. Designs like theirs take a lot of bottle to pull off, and I could never quite bring myself to go for it during my time at uni. I’ve also learned that there’s a time and a place for SANAA. I’d be intrigued to see what they’d do with a permanent building in the UK. I’ve never seen anything close to the lightness and ethereality of their designs in this country, and I don’t think I will for a long time.
SANAA have an ever increasing number of fans, as well as plenty of people who believe the emptiness of their designs don’t accommodate the richness and complexity of the life which inhabits them. They are architects who follow their vision with a playful and childlike stubbornness, and it is exactly this that has made them stand out. It’s apparent in their models and drawings, but most revealingly in their lectures. This lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtTo9qNrQB8 from 2011 given at the Harvard GSD is a good place to start if you’d like to understand SANAA’s approach. I highly recommend you do.