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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