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Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are the formidable duo behind Tokyo architectural studio sanaa (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates). Founded in 1995, sanaa has been an extraordinarily successful partnership. The pair are famed for their light, fluid structures that sit at ease in their particular landscapes. Memorable works, such as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, earned them the Pritzker – architecture’s highest prize – in 2010. 

This December will see the opening of Sydney Modern, an epic extension of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with commanding views across Sydney Harbour. Their solution for the historic site, which straddles a highway and incorporates two vast Second World War oil tanks and a grass-covered land bridge, is a series of pavilions that cascade down the sloping ground towards the waterfront. It is certainly one of the most ambitious cultural landmarks to open in Australia since the Sydney Opera House almost 50 years ago. sanaa has two other big projects under construction: New Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium in Japan and Suzhou Shishan Square Art Theatre and Museum in China. Monocle speaks to Sejima and Nishizawa in their waterfront office in Tokyo on the day that they are announced as the recipients of yet another award, the 33rd Praemium Imperiale.

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How was it working on Sydney Modern during the pandemic?
ryue nishizawa: It was the first time we’ve had to work remotely. We were lucky that a member of our team went to Australia before it shut down and she just stayed there. As soon as the country opened up, Sejima-san and I went to visit the project. Seeing it in real life for the first time was an amazing experience.

kazuyo sejima: During the pandemic we had regular online meetings with the museum people and more frequent ones with the project team. We met Kathryn Gustafson [who designed the landscaping] in Europe. Somehow it all worked out. 

The museum is in a remarkable location, right on Sydney Harbour. What did you think when you first saw it?
ks:Honestly, I was a bit hesitant about the site at first. With the bridge over the road and the oil tanks [that had to be preserved], we weren’t sure. But then we realised that it could be an exciting project. We spent a lot of time talking to the museum about how we could make some continuity between the existing [19th-century] gallery building and the new one. We also proposed turning one of the oil tanks into a gallery and that is now an incredible space.

rn: This peninsula is really beautiful: you have the Opera House, the Botanical Gardens and a big park called the Domain. There were also many historical elements to consider. I wouldn’t say that we felt pressure exactly but we wanted to do something good on one of the most beautiful sites in the city. We thought, “How can we make it better?” It was a good challenge. 

How did you come up with this idea for a series of pavilions? 
rn: Since the ground slopes down, it would have been difficult to make one big box. We made multiple galleries so that people can go down gradually. 

ks:And we fit them between spaces so that people can experience the surrounding topography. They can also walk on the roof, which is exciting. I wanted to design a building that creates new experiences for visitors. 

rn: One of the interesting things about this museum is that it’s built in a park. Inside and outside are both public. It’s also a thoroughfare: there are people who pass by every day from Woolloomooloo to downtown. 

You [Nishizawa] once said that a museum is ‘more than a place to store paintings’. What is the role of an art museum today? 
rn: The primary role is still to show art but recently museums have become more multipurpose. They’re also about learning, research and talks. There are so many events at the gallery – both cultural and business – in the lobby and in the restaurant. That’s a new side to museums; they function more like cultural centres. 

Sydney Modern is the first museum to be given Australia’s top rating for sustainable design. How important is sustainability in your work?
ks: Sustainability is often judged from the point of view of energy efficiency; it’s important but we’ve tried to look at the issue from different angles by using existing materials and features, and protecting trees. Those considerations affected the design: the entrance pavilion was positioned to accommodate a tree [a moreton bay fig planted by the artist Joseph Beuys]. With the oil tank gallery, we made use of its high ceilings and columns. We tried to respect what was already there.

What is the process of working as a duo? 
rn: We always work as a team, as many as 10 people. It’s normal for us. Everyone brings their own ideas. When somebody suggests something good, someone else might take over and make it better. There are many streams of thought. Some of them die; some of them survive; some of them are integrated. It’s very interesting. Nobody knows which one will win. Everything is done through discussion. Sejima-san is like my teacher; we share a language. The pandemic gave us time for discussion. Sejima-san stayed here from morning until evening so that we had time to talk through ideas. It’s a rare situation, which we’d never had before. Before, she was always busy, always travelling. Now I feel that we have too many meetings. The downside of the pandemic was that we couldn’t visit the Sydney site. When we did Louvre-Lens in France, I was there almost every month. 

You had an exhibition in Tokyo this spring that looked at the relationship of your work with the landscape – is that an essential ingredient? 
rn: Architecture doesn’t move; once it’s built it becomes a part of the landscape so we have to think how we can make them work together, especially in this kind of situation where everybody can see and visit it. Architecture isn’t sculpture. With an object, you think about how to make it look good. Architecture has to become one with the landscape. 

Your work has evolved from what you’ve called ‘box architecture’ to more organic shapes. How has your work changed over the years? 
rn: During the 1990s our architectural thinking was two-dimensional; we would take a flat drawing and turn it into a building. The big change is our computer tools. Back then we used Cad to draw plans and it was really two-dimensional. Now we have special programmes so we can think about new designs in three dimensions from the beginning. In the old days, everyone came to meetings with a plan to express their ideas; now they bring a rough 3D model.

ks: I must admit that I still like a plan. I don’t design on a computer. Our forms have become more complicated compared to the old days and in terms of the number of engineers we work with. We have to think from many different points of view. We listen to the engineers’ ideas and opinions, and then we develop the design. It’s a collaborative effort. 

What are the challenges of building overseas in locations you don’t know?
ks: Every site has its own characteristics. People who have grown up in a place know it best but sometimes an outsider can see something different. It can be challenging [to work in a new place] but it’s also interesting finding what’s possible. This is our first building in Australia. The weather and nature are beautiful but the scale is a lot bigger than Japan and the lifestyle is different. I was surprised to see so many people out running at lunchtime, close to the museum. The way people use a building is different too. 

Why do you think that Japan has produced so many good contemporary architects? 
rn: It’s not just Japan – there are so many great architects all over the world. Perhaps it’s that Japan isn’t Western so we take a different approach to design. When I go to Europe, I feel architecture is made with four walls. In Japan, this isn’t the only way. In traditional architecture, you don’t have those [solid] walls, which leads to a very different way of thinking. Continuity of space is very important in traditional Japanese architecture and for us too. With Sydney Modern we wanted the architecture to give people the opportunity to walk outside, even on the rooftops.

Last word about Sydney Modern?
ks: When we last visited, the experience on the first and second day was so different. Dark one day, sunny the next. The light conditions make for a very different atmosphere so it will be a changing experience for visitors. We want the museum to be part of the environment, even for people who are just passing or sitting on the terraces. 

rn: With the Kanazawa Museum of Contemporary Art, one of our dreams was that people in the city would accept the museum, that it would be a place that they want to use and become part of their town. That’s an important part of architecture for me. 
sanaa.co.jp

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