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I had the pleasure of taking tea with Kazuyo Sejima last week, immediately before she spoke to a small audience at the Royal Institution as part of their ongoing Japanese Cultural Evenings, organised with the Royal Academy of Arts Architecture programme. Only in London for 24 hours, Sejima told me it was something of a whirlwind visit. ‘Where to next?’ I asked, not especially with any timeframe in mind.
‘It has been an immensely busy year for me,’ Sejima replied. ‘The Pritzker prize, the Rolex Learning Centre, and the Venice Biennale. In the next year I will try to focus more on my own firm, doing more domestic projects. In fact, in Japan we are three firms in one space. My own, and Nishizawa’s - we only use SANAA as a name for international projects.’
‘How does that work, all of you together?’
‘It is one space. Also I followed this idea in Venice, where I chose to give each architect in the Arsenale their own unified space, in order to fully occupy it and exercise a level of control, even if the installation is diverse. I didn’t like the normal practice of dividing a room and filling it with lots of different contributors.’
‘How did you go about putting the Biennale together?’
‘I know about architecture. But not really about architects. So I started with some Internet searches.’
‘What did you think of the Golden Lion winner for best project, Junya Ishigami?’ (Whose installation Architecture as Air: Study for Château la Coste consisted of a barely visible house that was simultaneously a 1:1 model and a proposal for an new architecture)
Sejima replied: ‘The structure is made of a type of carbon fibre, which is very thin, not even a hair, and very long. So the structure is very complicated. And when they are this thin they become invisible… it is an air architecture… and people put their arms into the structure because they could not see it, and damaged it.’
‘What happened to the structure? When I went to see it there was nothing there, they were in the process of re-building something…’
‘Yes, that was not intentional, it was not a performance. But he told me it collapsed at least two times. Just when it was finished the whole thing was pulled down by a — ’ Sejima made a walking motion with her hands, as she searched for the right word, ‘a… cat.’ The effect was slightly The Emperor’s New Palace.
‘If it were up to you, to whom would you give the Golden Lion?’
Sejima sat back, then prefaced her answer with an immensely polite praise of the jury, expressing her deferral to their decision - it was not a question, she said, of ‘if she had been on the jury’, she could only express what she herself preferred.
‘Actually,’ she admitted ‘I liked Fretton and Pimlott. This was maybe because I had followed carefully their intention, which was to simultaneously express the spatial experiences of the interior of a palazzo and the square that sits in front of it. And in a strange way I think this was very successful. I really had the sense of the space always changing between public and domestic.’
‘Is the theme you chose, People Meet in Architecture, something your try to demonstrate in your own work?’
‘Architecture is a setting for activities, but also its relationship with its physical context. Public buildings are mountains in the landscape [laughs]. The Learning Centre in Lausanne is inside not so different from an actual rolling hill! I try to design buildings as possibilities. Sometimes that also means making the buildings melt with their garden. This was the idea of the Serpentine pavilion, and also a small sculpture garden in Taipei. There is no visible structure to the small buildings, where all the walls are made of thick acrylic. It is a completely transparent and invisible building.’
Suddenly it was time for the lecture. With a bow, Sejima excused herself. I took my place in the stalls as Nicholas Grimshaw took command of the podium. Not only did he mispronounce both architects’ names (and their firm) but he stopped to dwell on this mispronunciation - contriving an elaborate excuse, invoking the inherent difficulty of foreign names. The Japanese Cultural representatives in the front row kept heads bowed. After an embarrassed pause he began his introduction.
Unfortunately, I recognised the script outlining the firm’s history from the Pritzker Prize media kit. Grimshaw deviated from it only once, when he described SANAA’s Serpentine pavilion as a ‘floating glass plane’. A murmur swept through the audience as the material error was noted. Sir Nicholas then concluded with a somewhat confusing bit of archibabble: ‘Finally and most of all, SANAA demonstrates how we experience the senses that promote architecture…’
The audience remained silent. What came next was either a legitimate error, or a humourous Japanese corrective. Sejima hesitantly approached the podium and half whispered into the microphone “thank you, Sir… Norman Foster.”
The Autumn season of the Royal Academy of Arts Architecture Programme takes landcape as its theme and upcoming events include an RA forum on landscape urbanism movement whose speakers will include Groundlab’s Eva Castro and Alfredo Ramirez and a lecture from Spanish Practice PCR on recent projects (7 December).
For further information go the the Royal Academy Architecture Programme website.