Published  03/03/2014

Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA

Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA

Towada Art Centre, Aomori, Japan
1 February – 30 March 2014


Buildings for museums and cultural institutions, including the recently completed Louvre Lens museum in France (2005-12), are an important aspect of the work of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureates Japanese architectural firm SANAA, since it was set up in 1995, by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa. Now, the firm’s museum projects can be seen in an exhibition at the Towada Art Center, Aomori, which was itself designed five years ago by Nishizawa.

The exhibition consists of architectural models, drawings and video projections. Eight architectural “study models” for cultural institutions and museums, both finished and in progress, as well as some residential housing, provide a glimpse of what SANAA is aiming for. Then there are minute drawings and hand-written instructions, which are detailed suggestions of the structural plans for some of the projects that seem to be “internal communication tools” for the architect and the structural engineer.

On the wall hang photographs – “records” – of finished museums and art institutions. These media are all the vocabulary of the architect. However, there are hardly any of the wall “captions” or explanatory texts one would expect beside the models in a museum display. Instead, on entering the room, visitors are handed a sheet of paper listing the titles of the projects. Rather than seeing an “exhibition”, visitors are invited to examine the models (without touching) and drawings as if they have stepped into SANAA’s studio, or are themselves architects. Some models are already built, such as Teshima Art Museum in Shodo Island, Japan (2004-10), formed like a curvaceous hut or hill almost as if drawn free-hand, or the New Museum of Contemporary Art NYC (2003-07), which looks like a pile of different sized boxes. Many of the architectural models on display, however, are studies of projects that are still ongoing, including the Torre Neruda tower in Guadalajara, Mexico (2007-), the Hyundai Card Concert Hall in Seoul, South Korea (2009-), and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel (2011-). The viewer can only study how the project will progress finally into a finished piece of architecture. What is clear, however, is that these buildings defy the orthodox form of architecture for cultural institutions.

“Our work comes to reality with the unique and visionary mind of the client [the museums and art institutions that commissioned them],’ explains Nishizawa. “The more committed and receptive to new ideas the client is, the more original the architecture that can be realised,” he adds.

One might think any museum and its local people would wish for it to be built by a world-renowned architect. However, in a conservative city such as Towada, where the lifestyle seems not to have changed for 50 years, the opening of a contemporary art centre was not a project welcomed by all. “There was heated discussion between the administrative body and the regional community,” explains Hiroki Toyokawa, the centre’s administration manager. It is not difficult to imagine the bemusement of local citizens five years ago, on seeing Nishizawa’s plan for the centre – 16 detached cubic rooms of various sizes dispersed around a field, connected to one another by a glass corridor, and radically different from any museum architecture they had been used to.

“Many of the buildings in this region are small in scale,” says Toyokawa. And Nishizawa, rather than building a monumental institution that would oppress the local landscape, divided the museum into many room-size galleries so as to harmonise with the surrounding environment. Another advantage in having a number of independent rooms is that when the centre needs to expand its collection, it will be economically cost effective to enlarge the facility.

Stressing the importance of architecture being harmonious to the surrounding environment, Nishizawa says: “I also wanted to show that architecture can change the experience of looking at art.” At Towada Art Centre, each piece of art in the collection, which is all commissioned work – such as Ron Mueck’s colossal human figure or Ana Laura Aláez’s glass tunnel installation – has its own dedicated room. Nishizawa talked to each of the artists about designing the room for their work, just as architects have discussions with the client when building a residential house. In this way, the museum became “houses for art”. In other words, art and architecture are integral at Towada. This means its collection will never travel to another institution: the works will never leave the centre. This is strategically well planned as art lovers need to visit the site. It is important for an art institution in such a remote area to have a hook such as this to pull in audiences. As Nishizawa says: “For our special exhibition, we intentionally selected projects on museum and cultural institution so as to show that architecture has an important role in the museum visitor’s experience.”

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