Analytic and poetic, assertive and recessive, Kazuyo Sejima is the moonwalker of architecture, gliding in opposite directions with mind-bending grace. In 2004 the Tokyo-based firm SANAA, which she and Ryue Nishizawa had formed less than a decade earlier, catapulted onto the world scene with the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kanazawa, a city on the Sea of Japan. Winning the Golden Lion at that year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the museum placed SANAA and Kanazawa on the map of contemporary culture. As SANAA went on to complete increasingly prestigious commissions, including the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Sejima herself remained as hard to pin down as her architecture. In both her buildings and her manner, she is the opposite of that other prominent female architect, Zaha Hadid. Sejima dresses, speaks, and works in a way that deliberately deflects attention.
So it is with ambivalence that Sejima has responded to a year that thrust her into the spotlight. In the spring she and Nishizawa were awarded architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize. They also saw the inauguration of the Rolex Learning Center, a library and student complex in Lausanne, Switzerland, that happens to be their most audaciously attention-grabbing building to date. And this fall Sejima—on her own—is curating the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale. When she was offered the position, Sejima responded typically by asking if she and Nishizawa could be codirectors. Informed that under the rules there could be just one, she agreed to take the position, and then promptly enlisted Nishizawa as her adviser, along with Yuko Hasegawa, the former chief curator of the Kanazawa museum.
In recent years the Biennale has been curated by critics and scholars rather than by practicing architects. When I asked why Sejima was selected, Biennale president Paolo Baratta emphasized that an architecture exposition, unlike an art show, cannot display its actual subject matter, and an offering of models, renderings, and plans is redundant in a media-saturated culture. He hopes this Biennale, which opens August 29, will be viscerally powerful for visitors. “The exhibition is to make you have the experience of architecture, using the language of emotion more than of rational explanation,” Baratta told me. That impulse led him to Sejima. “Sejima is really the architect who refuses to conceive architecture as a way of representing the power of somebody, or the money of somebody else, or the ambitions of the client,” he said. “She instead comes back to an idea of architecture where functions, relations, and the division of space are what matters.” Her pared-down architecture is so functional, it’s lyrical.
Sejima made a brief visit to New York in late June to discuss the design of a Derek Lam boutique on Madison Avenue that is scheduled to open in October. Lam’s clothing, like Sejima’s own extensive collection of Comme des Garçons pieces, features a combination of intelligence, detailing, and understatement that appeals to her. She fashioned a store to match. Divided by 12-foot-tall curved acrylic panels that set boundaries for the clothes without diminishing them, the shop exemplifies the qualities Baratta described. “Very often, if an architect makes a place minimal and functional, it is very cold and inhuman,” Jan Schlottmann, the company’s CEO, said. “Or other architects can make a place that is lush and luxurious, and then it becomes very charged and overshadows the product. Nishizawa-san and Sejima-san make the product look even better, but it’s very human and warm. They create a house for it.”