Jul 8, 2009
  • Article by John de Manincor
  • Photography by Paul Green

Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa have an unusual arrangement as far as architectural practices go. Each run their own office, Kazuyo Sejima & Associates and Studio Ryue Nishizawa, designing small to medium scale works that are recognised internationally as being amongst the crème de la crème of what the world expects from contemporary Japanese architecture; apparently simple, deceptively complex, highly refined minimal white spaces. Over and above the challenges of maintaining their own successful practices Sejima and Nishizawa have been collaborating as SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) on larger scale works since 1997.

Their first collaboration was their “winning” scheme for the Cinematheque addition to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Selected over Steven Holl (USA), Enric Miralles (Spain), Williams-Tsien (USA), Heikkinen-Komonen (Finland) and Edmond and Corrigan (Australia). Filmmaker and competition juror George Miller noted their scheme had “the ability to enchant… the magic is unmistakable.” Through a complex combination of heritage, financial and managerial issues the Cinémathèque project did not proceed on the initial site. In the great tradition of poorly run competitions in Sydney, the MCA embarked on another competition for a revised brief in 2000, this time sans SANAA, instead inviting Nonda Katsalidis (Australia), Rafael Moneo (Spain) Francesco Venezia (Italy), MGT Architects (Australia) and Sauerbruch Hutton (Germany) – the MCA did not proceed with the project in that form. Sejima and Nishizawa declined to participate, Sejima herself noting, “I thought I’d already won that one.”

The Sydney architecture fraternity, many of whom are keen on minimal white forms, laments the lost opportunity of having a SANAA building amongst the city’s collection of works by great international architects – particularly given that the pair have since gone on to build an amazing body of works including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (Kanazawa, Japan), the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavillion (Ohio, USA) and the New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York, USA). Hence the city was buzzing for weeks with the news that SANAA was working in the city again, albeit at the scale of a single room installation for the prestigious Sherman Galleries Contemporary Art Foundation (Paddington, Sydney).

The Foundation invited a select group of the city’s leading architects, artists and a few media representatives to a private lecture by Nishizawa prior to the public opening. Arriving early to get a seat I entered the gallery space where tradesmen were putting the final touches on a series of undulating transparent acrylic sheets resembling SANAA’s proposal for Yu-Xi Gardens Pavillion (Taipei) and their Onishi Hall (Gunma, Japan), yet lacking the richness or complexity of these projects. The acrylic billows and compresses like an Aalto vase to loosely define a variety of spaces, two of which house a curiously random array of SANAA designed Rabbit Chairs. Under whelmed, I headed into Nishizawa’s lecture and left the tradesmen to their work – perhaps there was more to come.

Ryue Nishizawa entertained the elite audience with a modest, didactic explanation of some of his own work and that of his collaborations with Sejima. Their soon to be complete student centre in Lucerne, Switzerland, looks to be the most delightful project in their impressive oeuvre to date, where their pursuit of the organic moves from plan to section. Nishizawa made little reference to the installation other than to say the practice is interested in organic planning and the transparency offered by acrylic being explored in their architectural projects. There was no regret or ill-feelings for the MCA project. In fact, the current director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor opened the exhibition with Sam Marshall, the current architect for the planned MCA expansion, in the audience.

In the end one is left wondering what is gained from the installation? If transparency and lightness is the key agenda for SANAA, then this work clearly achieves these objectives. So much so that, as an artwork, it lacks real presence. The inclusion of their signature Rabbit Chair is somewhat distracting. As a means of understanding the work of SANAA the references to previous projects are obvious, assuming of course the audience is familiar with their work. I suspect the show will attract fans of SANAA who will come to Paddington with some preconceptions. Experiencing the work first hand they will make their own definitive observations – no doubt they will be left wondering about the art work and leave wondering what might have been at Circular Quay.

An architectural intervention by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA
Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation
3 July – 26 September

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