“Relations”, The SANAA Studios 2006–2008: Learning from Japan: Single Story Urbanism, October 21, 2009

Oedipus and Kronos never reached Japan. For in this country it is not inevitable that a young architect instantaneously commits patricide upon leaving his master, nor is it given for a master to impair his “renegade’s” prospects. The opposite is more likely. Japanese architecture can be characterized as a series of continuous flows. Concepts and attitudes are not copied blindly, but adapted, developed, reinterpreted, and modified. The relationship between master and apprentice generally remains respectful and the exchange occurs over time. A collective sense of responsibility toward the profession inspires Japan’s architects to feed an ongoing stream of ideas, passing on knowledge, influence, and interest from one generation to the next.

One such stream springs from Kunio Maekawa, himself an apprentice of Le Corbusier and Antonin Raymond, Frank Lloyd Wright’s associate in Japan. An early master of the postwar era, Maekawa is primarily known for his attempts to develop an approach that synthesized Modernism and Japanese tradition. Kenzo Tange, who worked in Maekawa’s office for four years, continued this effort. Tange, a vital force in Japan and abroad, returned to the spatial concepts and modular proportions of tatami,1 used textures to enliven the omnipresent concrete and steel, and integrated gardens and sculpture into his designs. He established the Tange Laboratory where young associates such as Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa, and Arata Isozaki met and exchanged ideas. Isozaki continued the Corbusien tradition and then turned toward a further exploration of geometric shapes and cubic silhouettes. He fused Western high-technology building concepts with typically Japanese spatial, functional, and decorative ideas to create a contemporary personal style. Traces of this geometric fusion of international influences with Japanese sensitivities continue to be visible—albeit modified—in the work of Isozaki’s disciples, such as Jun Aoki, who worked at Isozaki’s office from 1983 until 1990.

Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are part of a comparable flow that has Kiyonori Kikutake at its source. Kikutake graduated in 1950 from Tokyo’s Waseda University with a strong interest in the use of advanced technology to inform architecture and urban design. Three years later he established his own firm. The completion of his personal residence, the Sky House in Tokyo in 1958, made him famous. The house is a single volume elevated on piers. Arguing that the components most likely to change should be designed for ease of replacement, he distributed the service spaces around an open living space. When asked about her influences, Sejima mentions that as a child, coming across this house in a magazine drew her into architecture. Kikutake became a figurehead of the Metabolist Movement, launched at the World Design Conference in Tokyo in 1960, in the midst of worldwide explosive urban growth. The Metabolists initiated a new chapter in Japanese architecture, in a reaction to the “Eurocentric” CIAM. This movement explored the “symbiosis of diverse cultures, from anthropocentrism to ecology, from industrial to information society, from universalism to the age of symbiosis of diverse elements, from the age of the machine to the age of the life principle.”2

Between 1965 and 1969, Toyo Ito worked in Kikutake’s office. Upon starting his own office, Ito adapted and redefined his master’s exploration of the cross-fertilization of new technologies, urban life, and “nature.” He recognized a post-identity city where boundaries such as inside/outside and private/public were becoming increasingly porous. Illustrative to his thinking is the Pao for the Tokyo Nomad Girl project (1985), which introduces the vision of an “urban nomad,” immersed in the bubble of booming Japan. The performance of the building’s skin as an ephemeral interface between building and city inform his explorations, illustrated for instance in his project Tower of Winds (1986). Similar to Kikutake in the sixties, Ito, through his investigation of the border between the virtual and physical, devised an answer to a novel condition; that of the contemporary Asian metropolis in its transformation by popular culture and information society. Ito’s practice, like his master’s, educates a long lineage of talented designers. One of them is Kazuyo Sejima. After working there since 1981 she started her own office in 1987, at the height of an economic boom that would soon turn into a bust. Tokyo’s post bubble landscape craved for a shift in direction. Surrounded by the pompous artifacts of a deflated era, Sejima commenced on a search for a more restrained and personal architectural language. Yushi Uehara, a Japanese architect based in the Netherlands, who assisted both Ito and Sejima during their projects in that country, describes Sejima as model of the Tokyo Nomad Girl who appears in Ito’s work: “A new generation that is more personal when imagining space.” Uehara continues: “The architecture of SANAA is like your favorite furniture: Space that has less complication. Space that is as it is, not abused by any bigger manifesto: No obsession, no polemics but therefore expressing fresh aesthetics.”3 Although momentous architectural obsessions and spatial complexities inform SANAA’s work, these are indeed freed from an overarching dogmatic approach. Sejima moved Japanese architecture to a more personal, non-doctrinaire realm. Suddenly it can seep into the smallest alleys of the city and in its flow overtake gambling halls, fashion stores and tiny urban lots. Sejima soon was joined by Ryue Nishizawa, a young architect who as post-graduate student had already worked in Sejima’s office. “I don’t even remember graduating,” Nishizawa once remarked, “it was just a continual progression.”4 Together as SANAA, Sejima and Nishizawa continued their investigation of the fluid realm between substance and context. Through conceptual and technical invention they pushed this quest, nourishing it with new architectural possibilities. Today, this strain continues as SANAA fosters new breed of its own. Not only in Japan, with architects like Junya Ishigami or Tetsuo Kondo, but, also elsewhere around the globe because of SANAA’s expansive practice. As the dense media-infested metropolis is becoming a more ubiquitous condition, the architectural language that SANAA and their offspring have developed in reaction will gain relevance for all of us.

Japan is often seen as a society of timeless traditions. The truly timeless quality of these traditions is fundamental. It liberates them from history and grants eternal validity. They become ingrained in culture. One such tradition is a dedicated and systematic quest for progress—a perpetual, almost messianic, pursuit of the new. In this search influences can come from anywhere. Opportunism and open-mindedness select its source. Throughout history, Japan has absorbed the “higher” culture through total and instant immersion, shifting suppliers from China to Europe and then America. Advancement is immediate. By merging the freshly absorbed with relics of the previous, a new condition is achieved. In his introduction to a book on Japanese contemporary graphic design, Tsuyoshi Hirooka writes: “We have always adopted ideas and materials from overseas, always superficially because of a lack of interest in understanding the background of other countries. But we have developed those ideas according to our own interpretations and brought them to a completely different destination from the original ones.”5 At SANAA the raw ingredients have been perfectly absorbed. Asked after a lecture about a possible relationship between prewar German architecture and SANAA’s contemporary work Sejima replied: “Generally, we do not refer.”6 SANAA’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of the entire Modernist oeuvre is rooted so deep that it has become part of the office’s collective subconscious. Similarly, when pressed on any relation to traditional Japanese sensitivities in the work, such suggestion is typically deemed superfluous. Nishizawa makes this clear in El Croquis 139: “Well there might be some relationship, but I have never thought about it. There must be some relationship between our architecture and Zen, but actually I don’t know how they relate.”7

Through immersion, adaptation, and rigorous study SANAA generates new models out of an amalgam of influences. In dissecting this blend, elements of history and culture become visible, but other traces linger as well. Much has been said about the graphic, diagrammatic qualities in their work. This aspect of their architecture has often been discussed in relation to Japanese popular culture. Artist Takeshi Murakami tried to characterize this condition—contemporary culture in Japan at the end of the twentieth century—through introducing his idea of Superflat. “Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional.”8 Murakami coined the term to position his work within Japanese culture at large. “Consequently Murakami’s statement has drawn attention from critics and scholars due to its connotations: ‘devoid of perspective and devoid of hierarchy, all existing equally and simultaneously.’”9 Although SANAA certainly gives extensive attention to the graphic composition of their designs, it is not solely what they are after. The architectural plan is in fact an organizational tool. Not merely in its conventional way, as spatial organizer of the program, but as a carefully crafted script for human interrelationships. It’s a loose script, one that includes multiple and open-ended scenarios. The user/actor is offered a free range of options and trajectories, passing through realms of varied degrees of activation. The plan operates as a freely defined board game, with an internal set of rules and reasons. While traversing the plan the objective is to discover and examine its relationships. The building is the extrusion of a systematically and rigorously optimized plan. Material and color are neutralized to become the canvas for the act. Yuko Hasegawa—who commissioned SANAA to design the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art—claims: “SANAA adds chronological elements such as events and actions to their architectural structures”10 Describing the SANAA method, she continues, “The process is a game, a dialogue of which the outcome is unknown, the concept is given, but as programs develop over time, the game is about accommodating all different needs … The architectural design reveals itself in time and is given its wholeness through the relationship with the people who use the building and the surrounding environment.”11 The games SANAA instigates are local, they end at the perimeter. They can be playful, as the sets of rules and relationships do not represent a blueprint for an all-encompassing utopian system. One often mentions the permeable nature of SANAA’s facades, but these will not allow the game to escape into the world. They are transparent to seduce people to enter. The more participants, the more fun the game yields. Looking at a SANAA building is like looking at a pool on a hot day.

Similar concepts of the event, the open-ended outcome, and the need for users or audiences to participate have been ascribed to the work of a group of artists who gained recognition during the 1990s. Nicolas Bourriaud, a critic and former director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, has theorized the work of this group of artists—which includes Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Carsten Höller and Pierre Huyghe—within his concept of Relational Aesthetics.12 The artists in this group take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. Works, many of which operate on the scale of a room or environment, produce inter-subjective encounters through scripts of which the outcome depends on the participation of the audience. The work moves away from the individual aesthetic object to a more ephemeral, situation-based environment. It steers clear of a singular theoretical approach to embrace the mutability of meaning:

The ideas of diversity, potentiality, fluidity and simultaneity inform the work […] which opens itself onto the world, eschewing introspective critique in favor of engagement, activation, entertainment and seductions. At the heart of these varying practices is an impulse to merge experience and its representations […] the work is less about social interaction than a deliberate activation of the social, meaning that the viewer is drawn into the aesthetic experience to become an integral part of the process of perception and cognition.13

In conceiving ideas, Sejima likes the analogy of the park. She sees the park as a place where multiple and diverse activities take place concurrently. Paths, trees, and shrubs form soft separations between zones of accommodation. The user can roam freely between these different zones and see people enjoying their surroundings. A park only succeeds as an environment through activation by its user. Projects such as the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne operate in such a way. Ambiguous circulation spaces, places of density and lesser definition, realms of overlap and interference. Not unlike SANAA’s renderings these projects without their people and furniture would merely seem a collection of reflections and multiple shades of white. Similarly in smaller projects, such as Moriyama House, with the space between the volumes, or Onishi Community Hall, where the town’s main pedestrian route is incorporated in the plan, the work is activated by its users. The essence of these projects lies in fostering (not forcing) and exposing relational systems. The strongest analogy between the arts movement and SANAA’s practice occurs in their smaller installations. Their design for relational aesthete pur sang Hans Ulrich Obrist, whose Rumor Machine, part of the Mutations exhibition in Tokyo in 2001 consisted of layers of white cards, inscribed with rumors, on a low platform encouraging visitors to spread them throughout the city. A second project, Field Party, which Sejima undertook with her students, consisted of a 12m x 12m grid of approximately one hundred barbecues set up on a large field in the suburban outskirts of Tokyo. Each barbecue offered only one type of meat or vegetable (some nodes offered drinks). The inhabitants of this sleepy suburb roamed the field to taste the different dishes while encountering their neighbors along the way. “The party looks disconnected, but people share the coming dusk together.”14 One could argue that this interest in community and interaction fits within Japanese cultural values of conviviality. Similar interest in issues of participation can be seen in Japanese contemporaries such as Atelier Bow-Wow, for instance, with their White Limousine Yata project. But rather than making actual art, SANAA resolves their relational tendencies primarily within the realms of architecture. Projects are conceived through overarching concepts that are so versatile they can accommodate radical change and sudden programmatic omissions or additions as a result of external forces. Sometimes the work is wrongfully depicted as a series of beautiful objects, but it is the regressive (not minimal) qualities of these architectures, the programs they accommodate, and the potentiality of the spaces in between that make up the work.

Although there are few visual commonalities between the aforementioned artists and SANAA, the sensibilities that generate the work are similar. Both are responses to a new social space that has emerged with the rise and proliferation of virtual society. In art, this has prompted a desire for more physical and face-to-face interaction between people on one hand, while on the other it inspired artists to adopt a do-it-yourself approach and to model their possible universes. SANAA also tries to define answers to this novel condition. Sejima herself has said: “In an age of non physical communication by various means, it is the job of the architect to provide real spaces for direct communication between people.”15 Without being literal (the fold, the field) the framework SANAA sets up with their designs addresses new types of spatial and mental navigation the information age has introduced. One browses from space to space in a non-hierarchical, non-linear manner, to encounter and connect.

The focus on community and participation within architecture as a response to a new social paradigm interested the architects of Structuralism. Aldo van Eijk, the Smithsons, and Lucien Kröll, for instance, dealt with similar concerns. As in the art world, the main difference between SANAA and these historical movements is the shift in attitude toward social change: “instead of an ‘utopian’ agenda, today’s artists seek only to find provisional solutions in the here and now; instead of trying to change their environment, artists today are simply learning to inhabit the world in a better way; instead of looking forward to a future utopia, this art sets up functioning ‘microtopias’ in the present.”16

The introduction of new communication technologies in Japan has lead to isolation, a sense of loss, and the erosion of traditional social structures. SANAA’s work is not trying to preserve these old structures, but react to the loss of community by proposing new, contemporary alternatives, in which open, non hierarchical, and ever shifting relations take form. SANAA’s work is not Superflat. It achieves social cohesion through open-ended, continuous spatial containers that allow for accidental moments of exchange, gently held within a permeable membrane. The political aspect of the participatory project lies not in a move away from the spectacle to an “unmonumental” staging of community or in the claim that mere physical activity would correspond to emancipation, but in a faith in human’s individual ability to invent their own stories. “Unattached to a privileged artistic medium, this principle would not divide audiences into active and passive, capable and incapable, but instead would invite us all to appropriate works for ourselves and make use of these in ways that their authors might never have dreamed of.”17 SANAA’s work is transparent only to a degree. Upon further exploration, their buildings only give minor cues, dispersed in a field of ambivalence. This deliberate ambiguity turns each individual into a creator.


We live in times in which, as a result of financial and environmental crises, reservations about the project of Modernity begin to resurface. This gives us an opportunity to shift its focus. Connectivity and “smart” ecological and geometrical design, while well intentioned, seem to push architecture further into a techno-centric realm. The faith in technology as focal point of the profession should be considered with some reservation. Society’s systematic relocation to the virtual is greatly affecting a traditional sense of social space. Where in a pre-network culture, architecture shaped the social realm; accumulating in memory to form historical significance, it risks becoming the frictionless, temporary carrier of the virtual. As the modern driver of the architectural project, the program, evaporates, it will turn the entire world into the gigantic lounge (with Wi-Fi!) where people can do “whatever” as we now socialize, research, shop, play, and have sex online. This shift delaminates “value” from the physical world. Allowing this value to flow and mutate freely has recently left us with millions of acres of boarded up homes, dead malls, rejected icons, shrinking towns, and piles of expired “value-carriers.” In and against this milieu we should conceive of an architecture with intrinsic value. SANAA’s intentional “scripting” of activities shows us how our architectural intelligence can be employed to reinvigorate our sensibilities in the physical world. Rather than an architecture of the virtual—the graphic, the explicit, the temporary, the sterile, the mechanic—we should explore an architecture of the “new” real. An architecture that is spatial, sensory, and multivalent.

In the short movie Shaking Tokyo (2009), director Bong Joon-Ho imagines how a hikikomori (shut-in) after ten years gives up his voluntary solitary imprisonment. As he leaves his overgrown house he notices the total absence of human beings in the streets. We all have withdrawn from the real world into individual isolation and life online. During his search for a physical encounter, a sudden earthquake hits, violently forcing people out of their rat holes. Resentfully, they enter the derelict streets; the obese, the fearful and weak, in their tracksuits and slippers, scared and distressed, like newborn albinos thrown into the merciless sunlight. It’s time for architecture to get seismic before this scenario plays out.

  1. Japanese dimensional system based on a straw mat, about 91 cm × 182 cm
  2. Kisho Kurokawa cited in Cities on the Move, H. Obrist, H. Hanru, Hatje Cantz, 1999, ISBN-10: 3775707271
  3. www.zerodegree.com/WRT/WRT_TXT/borderl.htm
  4. Interview by Edan Corkill, The Japan Times, January 6, 2008
  5. JPG, T. Sakamoto, R. Prat, Actar, 2001, ISBN 978-84-95951-17-5]
  6. Kazuyo Sejima, Q&A Columbia University, lecture 2003
  7. El Croquis 139, 2008, ISBN-10: 8488386486
  8. Superflat, T. Murakami, H. Azuma, Madra Publishing, 2000, ISBN-10: 4944079206
  9. “New Sobriety,” F. Idenburg, Idea Magazine #293, 2002
  10. SANAA. 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa, Y. Hasegawa, M. Washida.Toto, 2005. ISBN: 4887062532
  11. Ibid
  12. Relational Aesthetics, N. Bourriaud, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998, ISBN-10: 2840660601
  13. theanyspacewhatever , N. Spector, Guggenheim Museum , 2008, ISBN-10: 0892073772
  14. SANAA: Works 1995–2003 , K. Sejima and R. Nishizawa, Toto, 2003, ISBN-10: 4887062249
  15. “Kazuyo Sejima,” Hunch 6/7, the Berlage Institute
  16. Relational Aesthetics, N. Bourriaud, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998, ISBN-10: 2840660601
  17. C. Bishop. OCTOBER #110, 2004, pp. 51–79, MIT Press