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SANAA partners are joint winners of Pritzker Prize

March 28, 2010 | 11:09 am


Over the course of its 31-year history, the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor, has been awarded almost exclusively to individual men. It has gone just once to a woman -- to Zaha Hadid in 2004 -- and Pritzker gallery twice to a pair of architects: in 2001, when Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Switzerland got the nod, and 1988, when the winners were Gordon Bunshaft and Oscar Niemeyer.

This year's Pritzker, announced Sunday, will begin to fill both gaps at the same time. The award is going jointly to Kazuyo Sejima, one of the most prominent female architects in the world, and Ryue Nishizawa, her (male) partner in the acclaimed Tokyo firm SANAA.

The choice also may exorcise some old ghosts. There has long been a sense that Pritzker jurors erred in not giving a joint prize in 1991, when Robert Venturi won, but his wife and professional partner, Denise Scott Brown, did not.

SANAA's buildings, located in Japan, the U.S. and Europe, are known for a reticent, ethereal and nearly weightless quality, often pairing pure-white interiors with broad expanses of glass. The firm's best projects are both delicate and uncommonly rigorous, with a nearly obsessive attention to detailing and execution.

The Glass Pavilion at Ohio'sToledo Museum of Art, a low-slung pavilion with exterior and interior walls made almost entirely of curving glass, is among the most quietly moving pieces of architecture completed in any American city in the last 20 years. As I wrote when it opened in 2006, its design "suggests that architectural Minimalism, long associated with a small group of architects including John Pawson, hasn't reached the end of its relevance -- that buildings can say as much, in a culture that is increasingly overloaded with imagery of all kinds, with what they leave out as what they include."

SanaaNewMuseum An exception to that precise, crystalline body of work is SANAA's 2007 New Museum in New York City, which has an ad-hoc, rough-around-the-edges appeal. In that design, Sejima and Nishizawa, working with a lean budget, produced a precariously stacked collection of boxes wrapped in an opaque skin of aluminum mesh. Inside, the mostly windowless galleries are spartan, with concrete floors and rather harsh fluorescent lighting.

Some critics complained that those galleries were less than welcoming as spaces for showing art; others said the building's main staircase was narrow enough, at just 4 feet across, to induce claustrophobia. 

But as a piece of architecture -- and as a symbolic presence in the Manhattan skyline -- the $64-million New Museum was prescient. In its commitment to doing more with less, and in its suggestion of a real-estate culture teetering on the edge of collapse, it was among the first high-profile buildings to signal the end of a flamboyant decade for both top architects and the American economy.

There is sure to be plenty of attention given to the fact that Sejima has now joined Hadid as a female Pritzker laureate. But the jury's choice this year is just as important for acknowledging the often collaborative nature of architectural practice. 

In recent years, as architects began to be treated as global celebrities, it became all too easy to imagine that they produced their most inventive designs working as solitary, isolated geniuses, not unlike poets or sculptors. But of course the best-known architects oversee staffs that can number in the hundreds. And there is a rich history in the field of two architects leading a firm in tandem.

SanaaZollvereinIn praising SANAA's "collaborative partnership," the Pritzker jury noted that "it is virtually impossible to untangle which individual is responsible for what aspect of a particular project. Each building is ultimately a work that comes from the union of their two minds."

The jury also argued that Sejima and Nishizawa, although not known as theorists or for a body of written work, are nonetheless "cerebral architects," which seems about right.

Sejima, who will direct this year's Architecture Biennale in Venice, arguably the leading design exhibition in the world, was born in 1956 and joined the office of Toyo Ito in 1981. She left to start her own firm in 1987, hiring Nishizawa, who is 10 years younger, as one of her first staffers. Together, the architects founded SANAA -- short for Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates -- in 1995. Their forthcoming projects include a branch of the Louvre museum in Lens, France. Both continue to operate their own smaller, separate firms. 

The architects will receive the award, which includes a $100,000 cash prize, in a May 17 ceremony on Ellis Island in New York. They join Kenzo Tange (1987), Fumihiko Maki (1993) and Tadao Ando (1995) as Pritzker laureates from Japan.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photos: At top, SANAA's Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland; New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art; and, at bottom,  the Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany. Credit: Hisao Suzuki / courtesy SANAA

Comments () | Archives (7)

Museums re-used and re-imagined is a movement thankfully on the upswing after a period of ego driven big box disasters. Thank goodness the work SANAA is being recognized for its clean lines, attention to detail, and working within a modest budgets. There work has caught the eye but maintained respect for the environment in which the real star, the collection, is to be shown.

And having just seen "The Art of Steal: The Untold Story of the Barnes Foundation" last week, I have more than a bit of alarm at the big box piece of junk the Barnes Collection will be moved into. There are so many museums that would do well to concentrate on cost effective ways to attract visitors beyond the dead headed thinking that a big new building is the only way to solve all attendance problems.

There is an old saying: Good things come in small boxes. That does not only apply to jewelry.

Hurray for SANAA; they definitely deserve all the accolades they receive. I've visited several of their buildings -- a house in Tokyo; the business school in Zollverein; the Glass Pavilion in Toledo, Ohio; and the New Museum -- and all are complete works of architecture as art.

One cavaet: Sejima's mentor, Toyo Ito, should have received the award this year -- before SANAA. Ito's contribution to contemporary architecture in general and influence on SANAA's work needs to be honored ASAP.

Even now, the Pritzker Prize jury always seems to get something wrong.


Re: the Barnes Collection comment, the architects selected to design the new home, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, will be sure to create a building better than what the commenters says is a "big box piece of junk." Is that how the documentary is characterizing their work? If it is, no matter the issues regarding the stewardship of the Barnes art collection, the film is doing a disservice to these fine architects.

Thats the problem now, starchitects wannabe artists. Its all line and form but where the color? Wheres the life? Completely sterile, with no fulfilling of buildings true function, to create environments for humans to live in, work in, and communicate in. Cold, silent, all about the builders, the architect and the patron, mausoleums. A coffin would fit in here perfectly, or an absurdity like a Hirst pickled creature.

Create areas of light, movement and purpose, lots of wasted room from what I see, what can anyone possible do here but stand and appear to be clever? Useless. Create spaces for paintings, desks, beds, all sorts of work utensils like pots and pans, you know, life. The Vatican just had a council decrying the sterility of modern churches and tackiness of contemporary art, lets get bak to fundamentals people. Its not about you. Everything we do has a function, a purpose, if you ignore it, its useless. literally.

art collegia delenda est

Well deserved! I particularly like the New Museum in NYC for many reasons, including its Warhol Meets the World of Architecture look.
(DF & other anti-Warholites insert your usual snide criticisms here: ___________)

Nah, Warhol is perfect at the "new" mausoleum. just keep his contempt out of MoMA

Ah, DF, MoMa has a lot of 'contempt' for Warhol, including the soup cans, among many other works. Other museums with 'contempt' for him include the Met and LACMA.

congrats to the duo.

Astrid, I agree with your comment 100%. if I may I would suggest this awesome read :

DF, I don't think they are flawless, but to label them starchitects wannabe artist? Architecture is much an art as it is a science or business or anything else. I good building should have some artistic expression in my view and I think yours as well. However when the expression becomes too bombastic and overshaddows the art this is when we call the the architects wannabe artist. SANAA's work on the other hand, is obviously minimal and the bombastic is thrown out the door. It allows the art to be the star and doesn't compete for your attention in the same way.


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