Although their complementary natures can be exaggerated, making Sejima seem all right brain to Nishizawa’s left, it’s true that her responses are usually intuitive and his are expressed in rational terms. “During the discussions about Lausanne, I explained how to generate structural geometry,” their frequent collaborator, engineer Mutsuro Sasaki, told me at the time of the schematic design phase of the Rolex Learning Center. “Nishizawa always tries to understand it logically. Sejima’s comment is, ‘This point could be higher, and then I would be happy.’” The architects began with the simple premise of wanting to place the entrance to their very large building in the center so that any point inside could be reached without an oppressively long walk. They had originally conceived a large, thin, flat slab over an open space with very few support columns. “I rejected it as nonsense,” Sasaki said. To resist deflection forces, the roof would have to be ridiculously thick—more than one story. Instead, he proposed a gently curving roof that would minimize bending stress. By maintaining a constant height between the parallel floor and the roof, the scheme would create interesting congregation spaces beneath the swoops. “Because of this proposal, Sejima started to think of a new kind of structure,” Sasaki said. “If there is a formalist curve proposed, she would reject it. She will never turn out to do Frank Gehry’s buildings.” The initial motive was functional; then she refined it, to make it beautiful.
Critics tend to stereotype SANAA as working only in white or glass, but Sejima chafes at such limitations. I was with her and Nishizawa five years ago in Ohio, as their first American building, the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion, awaited installation of the glass facade. “I think she loves glass, but she says she doesn’t like glass,” Nishizawa joked. To which Sejima replied, “Not don’t like, but not so interesting.” A couple of months later in New York, she said to me, “White I don’t like so much now. That doesn’t mean I like color. Just natural is also uncomfortable for me. So I am trying to find a type of new space, but I cannot do it.”
With the design of the Rolex Learning Center and the masterminding of the experiential Venice Architecture Biennale, Sejima has come closer to her asymptotic goal of a pure architecture, one that uses material to create the immaterial, that is both grounded and elevating. She is trying for an architecture that will be inhabited, rather than merely appreciated from the outside. Think of it as clothing—not an outfit that you admire on another person or that you check out on yourself in the mirror, but something that, when you are wearing it, makes you feel better and more like yourself.