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Ellis Island, New York, USA – Masters of simplicity SANAA win the Pritzker Prize

Less is more? Or less is less? Does the minimalist aesthetic of Pritzker-winners SANAA make great architecture

The annual Pritzker Prize is often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, an excessive claim designed to convey an air of Olympian authority. The selection is made by a jury whose members change from time to time and the decisions reflect a range of critical opinion. There have been high points and low ones, and it is never clear if the prize is being given to recognise a lifetime’s work, a presence on the world scene, or a collection of masterpieces. For, like all mortal humans, even ‘Pritzkers’ are capable of producing poor buildings alongside their more successful realisations.

The attribution of the Pritzker to SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) this year comes as no great surprise to those who know the machinations of opinion-making on the globalised architectural scene. These architects have established a tidy international portfolio of prestige schemes - museums, university buildings, fashion houses, exhibition pavilions and the like - on several continents. They have an immediately recognisable style distinguished by minimalist surfaces, planar geometry, slender structural skeletons, a subtle use of glass skins, lightness, luminosity and an attention to the natural setting. In effect this has become an international marketing brand, a welcome relief for those clients who wish to play the game of the star system yet avoid the flamboyant over-statements of figures like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid.

’Beyond its individual buildings, SANAA has established a system, an architectural language, which permits simple (sometimes over-simple) solutions to architectural problems, fast-track production and the exporting of projects across national frontiers’

This approach seems most effective in projects of small to medium size, such as the Ogasawara Museum in Japan (1999), which floats above the terrain and establishes a quiet relationship with the surrounding nature. SANAA’s work explores transparency and materiality, skeleton and skin. Its delicate structures touch upon an old agenda in Japanese modern architecture, the reconciliation of industrial frames in concrete or steel with the qualities of traditional architecture constructed with wooden posts and beams.

Inevitably SANAA’s work raises the old question of the role of simplification in architecture. Ideally abstraction is the means to distil an underlying content, but if this is missing one risks ending up with elegant diagrams. The champions of SANAA’s work claim to see some modernist version of Zen simplicity; the sceptics reply that some of the projects are thin and without underlying meaning; that they lack expressive presence. Some of the larger SANAA projects have the air of oversized architectural models made from monotonous materials. The voids sometimes lack spatial richness; the plain exteriors sometimes lack presence; the open plans occasionally lack a clear concept of circulation.

The entire trajectory of Japanese modernism is haunted by the figure of Le Corbusier. Every generation has reread his work and the Dom-Ino skeleton has been ever present (for example in Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediathèque, AR October 2001). SANAA’s exquisite glass pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio (AR November 2006), subtly reworks a Corbusian ‘free plan’, while the rectangular insertions in a circular perimeter of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa (2004), are another, inverted variation on the theme. Sometimes SANAA’s ‘recuperations’ of modernist formulae are almost too obvious, as when they recycle the frames and transparencies of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, or the biomorphic curves of Oscar Niemeyer’s masterpiece, the House at Canoas of 1953.

Do any of SANAA’s works achieve the same level as these earlier masterpieces? It does not seem so, and if they have been given the Pritzker it is probably in recognition of a generally competent level of production rather than to salute particular outstanding buildings.

’Their work is pleasing to the eye yet in no way disturbing (in contrast, for example, to the work of Peter Zumthor, which cuts deeper). Possibly too there are occasions when this ‘simplicity’ constitutes a refusal to face up to the complexities of architectural tasks’

The recently opened Rolex Learning Centre at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (AR May 2010) illustrates some of the risks. The client wanted a flagship building for the institution, and SANAA responded with an open social landscape of waving floors and roofs, punctured here and there by curving courtyards.

Of course ‘folds’ are in fashion at the moment, especially in Japan (think of some of Toyo Ito’s recent works) but once the gimmick has worn off the Learning Centre risks becoming monotonous, like an airport lobby. The geometry, which pretends to be liberating, is far too insistent, and the light is glaring: thought needs more shadows. In this continuous space the functions of a social forum, canteen and commercial area interfere with the privacy, silence and peace of mind required for a library. The lack of internal partitions seems to have necessitated a squad of security guards. As for the exterior, the landscape metaphor seems forced, especially when the building is experienced against the real Swiss landscape of lake and mountains. The very title ‘Learning Centre’ suggests the management jargon of ‘globalisation’, and the building has more the air of a commercial headquarters or a slick showroom on the urban periphery than a centre devoted to real learning, reflection and research.

Sejima has recently been elected as the president of the next Venice Biennale. It will be interesting to see what direction she takes beyond her chosen slogan, ‘People meet in architecture’ - especially after the bonfire of vanities of the last Biennale with its pretentious art installations and fatigued deconstructivist clichés. Is there something in the DNA of the Biennale that obliges it to be a sort of fashion shop of trends? Or can it break out and refresh our senses and our minds with some thoughtful architecture for once? The most original and appropriate thing at this juncture would be to assemble a body of architectural work of high quality. No doubt Sejima has the necessary architectural culture to achieve this task.

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