City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Moriyama House, Ryue Nishizawa (photo by the author ten years after this piece was written, in May 2018, as part of this later set of thoughts)

A review of a new volume on the pre-eminent Japanese architects of this age

Ed. This piece was first published at on 27 January 2008. See this later set of thoughts on Nishizawa's Moriyama House, written a decade later, after finally visiting.

The Japanese architectural firm SANAA rightly have the adulation of the world’s press bestowed upon them. After a steady, sure ascendancy over the last decade or so, they’ve now joined the big league with their recent New Museum of Modern Art on New York’s Bowery.

However, this excellent book by the Barcelona/New York-based publisher Actar concentrates on what might actually be a more important aspect of their portfolio: houses. For as good as the New Museum appears to be – I haven’t seen it, but it is by all accounts a great bit of building – we can afford to be just a little aloof about new museum or gallery design.

It’s not that there aren’t fine, adventurous buildings emerging (cf. Steven Holl’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.) And the civic and cultural aspects of galleries and museums are indeed vital and essential for cities. But when this largely well-understood design problem gets solved anew, the attention it gets is slightly out of proportion. (Ed. I’d write this a little different now, a decade later and having worked on several library and museum projects, including the British Library and the V&A. They are tricky buggers.)

Housing may always be a more complex design problem. And from the perspective of Japanese architecture, and Japanese culture, it’s perhaps the pivotal built form. Indeed, Kristine Guzmán claims here that “Japan’s sociological unit is the home, not the family.”

Further, Japanese cities, often defined by an intense density, provide a testbed for exploring ideas of habitation that should become increasingly relevant elsewhere. Particularly in those American and Australian cities that need to unlock their muscle memory for density, their sprawling perimeter eventually withdrawing from recently singed edges, folding in on themselves such that more people simply have to inhabit less space. So these explorations in discreet, civil density are immensely valuable.

To be clear, the buildings themselves won’t translate simply to other cities, as the conditions are quite distinct. Urban Japan’s societal norms and cultural values are still utterly unique, and several of the insightful essays here explore exactly what those values and conditions might be, all with varying degrees of success in terms of conveying them for an English-speaking audience. Some things will always be lost in translation, it would seem, and attempting to pin down Sejima and Nishizawa’s work in one book of many photographs, one interview and three essays is like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

Moreover, if one could distill the essence of their work, you couldn’t simply relocate it in another city. It’s so different, so distinct. Equally, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is the kind of affordable housing that many of our cities so badly need. These are mainly works for individual clients (even if SANAA explore ideas of communities of little dwellings within that, as with the Moriyama House, and their materials are often inexpensive.)

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And yet, this book is about work of the highest build quality, incredibly interesting engineering, and architectural approaches that might translate, and some overriding concerns and concepts that should be of value almost everywhere.

Most of all, a focus on houses, and on houses that reinforce a civic sense of connection with the surrounding environment and the enveloping informational context, while reinforcing discretion, privacy, intimacy and flexibility, and often in a high density context of small plots and tight spaces.

As such, it’s a rejoinder to the kind of architectural journalism that focuses on the iconic free-standing residence. (Exhibit A: a collection of a certain kind of Australian architecture, featured in A+U, ironically, a Japanese publication. This depicts “the isolated object in the infinite landscape” as Philip Goad has it. Here, SANAA’s houses are often connected objects in a very finite space indeed.)

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This balance between the personal and the civic, in the city, is explored in almost every single project here (there are a few exceptions).

The projects are grouped into unfinished and finished, with seven of the former and five of the latter, and are drawn from an exhibition at Museo de Art Contemporáneo de Castilla y León. Each project is presented in drawings, photographs and models, with only a small paragraph describing each. As such, you’re left somewhat adrift on the specifics of the projects.

Yet, the projects are so obviously fascinating that this rather dry presentation inevitably shifts the reader into contemplative mode, meaning a far richer engagement with the work. I usually prefer more exposition rather than less, but on this occasion the blankness suits.

Blankness, or ideas of immateriality, translucency, weightlessness, and conjuring an innate simplicity are often to the fore in the exposition that the book does offer up, in three contrasting essays by Guzmán, Luis Fernández-Galiano and Yuko Hasegawa. Novelist Haruki Murakami is even suggested as a totem in Fernández-Galiano’s smart attempt to find some reference points for SANAA’s work.

“His exploration of contemporary values through a hypnotic, jovial and surreal cocktail of lyrical levity, atmospheric sensuality and attention to material detail are perhaps a better parallel to SANAA’s architecture.”

Hasegawa’s piece, ‘Radical Practices in constructing Relationships’, situates these houses in the context of SANAA’s other work for museums and cultural centres, perhaps as you might expect from the curator of the Museum for Contemporary Art in Tokyo. It’s useful, but rather side-steps the subject of this book.

Kristine Guzmán’s is the most useful essay, moving easily through the multiple notions of ‘Japan-ness’ (after Arata Isozaki) that SANAA play with. She places Sejima and Nishizawa’s work as following that of Kenzo Tange and Tadao Ando, in terms of “integrating the aesthetic values of traditional Japanese architecture within a modern architecture.” Guzmán suggests this may be “unconscious”, though there’s a revealing passage in the interview with Agustin Pérez Rubio that opens the book:

Nishizawa: “We are very much influenced by Japanese architecture. We have just never tried to quote directly from the Japanese past.”
Sejima: “We cannot avoid drawing some influences from Japanese tradition.”
Nishizawa: “It is not an option we can take.”

Guzmán’s essay continues to explore the importance of the house, of transparency, harmony with nature, shifting spatial function over time, transcendence, emptiness, and the values that SANAA’s work stands for. It’s fascinating.

In following the work, all three essays lead the reader back to the front of the book, to want to go through the projects again. The aforementioned interview is also relevant, allowing the architects themselves to frame what follows.

The setting for the interview is as revealing as anything, however. It takes place at a table in the studio shared by three practices, which is later used for eating at, and had previously been used for a client meeting, and before that, model-making. This multi-functional use of space is one of the more distinctive features of the projects here. Again, in describing a domestic architecture that enables the program to shift through different spaces over time, SANAA describe the useful 21st century urban home, a place where working and living co-exist, where private and public twist around each other, where informational media potentially pervades every space, yet where there is still room for shielded reflection and a relationship with nature.

(This last aspect is an ever-present theme in these projects, with large white spaces dotted with splashes of pot plants and flowers. There’s little reference of this in the texts, but it’s clearly a preoccupation of SANAA’s. Their ‘House in a Plum Grove’ is the most overt attempt to synthesise the edifice with its environment, but almost all these spaces are also urban gardens. It’s wonderful.)

Elsewhere, gardens become living rooms become offices become playrooms become basketball courts. Sejima and Nishizawa are working with a resourceful urban culture, but are also aware of the informational qualities of that culture – in that a space’s function is now also heavily influenced by the personal technology within it. As Guzmán puts it:

“The link between the idea of information culture and certain notion of flexibility is explained in the book Blurring Architecture by Toyo Ito, where he reflects on space in 21st century architecture based on the Modern Movement, and says that an architecture that serves as a bridge between a biological and electronic body must have “a floating nature that allows for changes over time (…) because in today’s society it is absolutely essential to do away with borders based on simplified functions and establish a relationship of overlapping spaces.”

This is why SANAA are quite so interesting. In drawing from civic architecture and public space – parks, libraries, museums —they imbue domestic spaces with informality, intermediate spaces, chance spaces, private spaces that shift easily to public and back again, the freedom to occupy a space with an unintended function. In a sense, by providing a platform for multiple behaviours and histories, SANAA’s projects become a series of metaphors for understanding how informational spaces and physical spaces are beginning to entwine.

Further, in doing this mostly in the tightest of urban contexts – their ‘Small House’ here has a site area of 60m²; a typical Australian plot has shifted from a rationed 134m² just after WWII to 264m² today, with 600m² not unheard of – SANAA give us an optimistic vision for high-density urban living that is innately civic. When viewed through that lens, this collection could provide a pattern book for concepts, to be interrogated by architects, planners and anyone else who cares about the modern city. The ideas need translating, and some certainly won’t take elsewhere, just as this text occasionally feels a little slippery, presumably translated from Spanish and Japanese into English. But that’s a useful lesson too.

It’s not at all perfect, the Japanese city, but there is still much to draw from it. Sir Peter Cook spoke warmly about the Japanese take on urbanism in a recent interview – he described it as “naughty thinking”. We could well use a global outbreak of this naughty urbanism.

A further point to draw from this work is that of craft. SANAA can achieve such lightness in their architecture only through manufacturing of the highest build quality. The sense of weightlessness of ‘House in Plum Grove’ comes from interior walls of structural steel plates that are only 10mm thick, and exterior walls that only 50mm thick. This devotion to detail is also a useful tenet to reinforce worldwide. It’s why it is encouraging to see SANAA’s museum project apparently succeed in New York, after many Japanese architects had found American contractors incapable of their craft.

So as SANAA and their projects inexorably grow in size, their skill with at the domestic scale should be especially lauded. That’s why this book is actually more important than the slew of recent articles on the Bowery. It does an excellent job of documenting SANAA’s work on houses, up to late 2006, and by respectfully leaving room for interpretation, it offers up numerous prompts for how functional and informational flexibility and density might be enabled through their sheer craft with material, space and program.

The book’s photographs shifts in and out of focus, as if aping these ideas of blurring and graduating transparency (also sometimes due to being shots of models). Some photographs often feel flatter than 2D, somehow. This doesn’t always add value, but essentially the projects are presented extremely well, often imaginatively framed, sometimes captured in the grainy cinéma-vérité of DV screengrabs, and usefully accompanied by plans and sketches.

Yet as Hasegawa, perhaps un-helpfully given the context, notes in his closing essay: “SANAA’s architecture has many elements that are impossible to understand unless one actually ‘experiences’ it. In contrast with modern architecture, SANAA has many aspects that cannot be revealed in ‘representative’ media such as plans, models, and photographs.” I’ve only ‘experienced’ one SANAA building at time of writing, the graceful Dior store on Omotesando, Tokyo, and can thus extrapolate only a little from my understanding of that.

Dior shop, Omotesando, Tokyo (photo by the author, 5 April 2007)

But only a little. And though Hasegawa is essentially correct that representation cannot begin to approach the phenomenological depth of experience that actually being there provides, the book is still ultimately composed of ‘just’ these “plans, models and photographs”.

Certainly this key point—of documenting how the architecture enables change, multiple functions over time, and absorbs and responds to information flow—is rarely attempted, save for a few diagrams from the practice. It’d be interesting to hear more about how Sejima and Nishizawa might articulate these ideas, other than through their architecture.

How might one represent that blurring, overlapping or “floating nature”, as Toyo Ito has it. Information graphics, diagrams, animations, automatic documentation? Ongoing Building Informational Modelling, forming a form of post-occupancy evaluation perhaps? Or film, even? Perhaps SANAA’s architecture is too subtle to be so crudely pinned down. Either way, aside from the following images, the book rarely attempts it.

The design of the book is also drawn towards a purity of blankness, a floating abstract simplicity that sets the text gracefully in black sans-serif amidst white space. Photographs are generally full-bleed, with the most representative – of the book and the work itself – those of streetscapes or rooftops pinned down to the bottom of the book by the empty weight of the white Tokyo sky.

It’s reminiscent of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s bleak, brilliant manga The Push Man, with the iconic Tokyo line:

“A pretty sky just gets me wound up, and my head starts pounding. The city doesn’t need a sky.”

The lack of ornament in that sky is mirrored in SANAA’s houses below, as well as this book. Everywhere, the ancient Eastern notion of “omnipresent emptiness” that Guzmán refers to.

And so, room for people emerges.

Ed. This piece was first published at on 27 January 2008. See this later set of thoughts on Nishizawa's Moriyama House, written a decade later, after finally visiting.

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