In the development of contemporary Japanese architecture Kazuyo Sejima takes one of the central places. While Toyo Ito, with whom Sejima worked, played a key role in the turn towards the research of easiness and transparency, Sejima stepped further towards the architecture of elementary, yet poetic forms that host inventive and very original interpretations of the program. Independently or in collaboration with Ryue Nishizawa (in tandem or within the common SAANA office) Sejima continually pushes the boundaries of her work marked by the reduction of architectural language and almost diagrammatic concepts. Each new Sejima's project shows her ability to reduce to the visual "almost nothing" which forms stimulative spaces, rich in experience. Sajima oversteps the conventional understanding of simplicity because each of her projects stems from the simultaneous rational and sensual understanding of social, urban, technological and other parameters which results in a particular author's architecture.
ORIS: I found in an interview that your high school teacher told you that you like music and film but also mathematics and advised you to study architecture. I don’t know if this is totally accurate, but how do you see the relationship between architecture and other arts?
Sejima: It was kind of the opposite. In Japan everyone selects their course at the end of high school at the age of around 17 or 18. At that time I was growing up in a small city and we didn’t have Internet then or even magazines. So architecture was very distant for me, I couldn’t imagine what type of profession architectural work was. But I remember when I was a child I saw a very special house in my mother’s magazine. It was a magazine for women, not on architecture but more on house decoration and the magazine showed that house on two or three pages. Maybe I was 10 or 11 and it was very shocking. That was my only connection to architecture from my childhood. When I was 18 I had to decide something. I liked mathematics. I also checked medicine, but to go and study medicine is very difficult. So, I went to technical university and checked the programme and everything seemed very remote and then I found architecture. I thought this is it. I was a little afraid, but even for a high school child architecture seemed interesting. Then I remembered that as a child I was interested in that house from my mother’s magazine, so I thought maybe I’d try. At the same time I thought I was not good at art – meaning drawing and painting, but at the end I decided to try. If I was good at music or film maybe it would be easier to go on an architectural course. Actually I was not good at design or painting in high school but I went to architecture. I enjoyed university.
ORIS: The house you are referring to is the Sky House designed by Kiyonori Kikutake, one of the highlights of Japanese post-war modern architecture. Somehow you intuitively recognized the qualities in it.
Sejima: I couldn’t understand it but it made a really big impression, even in the magazine. Three years ago I was finally able to visit it and it is still very nicely maintained.
ORIS: Was Kikutake, who passed away at the end of 2011, still living in the Sky House when you visited it?
Sejima: Yes. He made another building next to the house and maybe he was living in that. His son lived in the Sky House.
ORIS: The fact that the house is occupied by a new generation shows how vital its concept is, how this house is capable of enduring time and changes in lifestyle, probably because of the flexibility of the plan. You are also interested in similar qualities in housing, but also in other programmes, the quality of a building being capable of adapting itself to change and maybe even new users?
Sejima: I think flexibility is some kind of attachment and maybe we can find another type of openness.
ORIS: When I speak about flexibility I am not necessarily referring to the physical changeability of a space but open and multiple possibilities of inhabiting the space. Flexibility is not only about sliding doors or movable elements, but about the articulation of a space and how to relate different spaces to the whole.
Sejima: Japanese public museums demand that we use moveable walls because they are public institutions and should be flexible. We were asked the same when we designed the Kanazawa museum but at that time the museum’s curator, Ms Yuko Hasegawa, really didn’t like that system. She didn’t wish to use sliding walls in the gallery and instead proposed making spaces of different proportions and shapes which made me very happy. At the same time, I always worry about being prepared for a gallery without a permanent collection and I couldn’t find the ideal solution, the strategy. If I couldn’t find the strategy, then the 18th-century type of gallery is good enough in terms of flexibility. Also, a gallery should only be the base for the art. After the completion I realised that even if a gallery space doesn’t work perfectly, an artist can use galleries in different ways. I think this kind of gallery has some flexibility, maybe openness. For me it is the process, I don’t know how to achieve it, but I try to define the shape of the programme. At the same time I’m interested in kind of not completing the building, to leave space for some openness for future development, for what is found afterwards by users or others. I think this is very difficult. My concept may seem to be too democratic. I don’t want it to be too democratic, if that’s correct word. I don’t think this is always possible but I am very happy when space is used in different ways. For example, if I had a chance to design a school I’d like to do my best to design a very nice school for the children but at the same time I would be very happy if someone very talented, interesting or communicative used that space not as a school but in a different way. It’s very contradictory.
ORIS: In your opinion architecture is not necessarily fixed in terms of the relationship between use and space, but space can house different types of events. In Kanagawa this type of strategy required a lengthy design process, because you devised several types of gallery and then decided how many types of spaces was enough in order to achieve openness and diversity.
Sejima: Yes, this is very difficult and sometimes I couldn’t find it. It’s not necessarily the perfect solution, but it is the best one we have arrived at.
ORIS: Otherwise a project could be researched endlessly. Your design methodology is based on sequences of adjustments going back and forth between the form and the programme in search for an appropriate solution. It’s an iterative process which doesn’t aim at the ideal or perfect design.
Sejima: Our design process is to go step by step, especially in the earlier stages, but our form is somewhat simple. Recently we used curves. In our previous work we couldn’t find a clear reason for curved forms. Of course, design is always about the shape but also about trying to think about the interior activities, the space and also the sound. Still I cannot say there’s only one solution, maybe there are more solutions.
ORIS: You used basic forms in the Kanazawa museum – circles and squares – but you gradually started experimenting with freer forms. How did that happen?
Sejima: In the beginning we worked with simple forms but after Kanazawa I realised the programme can became very abstract. Then we thought the concept was not good. The dining room is 20 square metres, but what is the dining room and what did we try to find? It is not abstract. Nishizawa and I found some new geometry, geography of geometry. People easily say it is very emotional but we don’t think it is emotional or childish. We found that contemporary society can introduce a new geography that just fits our body or feeling.
ORIS: In the design of the Toledo museum you introduced curved angles in the volumes in order to adjust the programme to the spatial configuration. It was not only a formal decision.
Sejima: The Toledo corner started from the grid. At some point I decided to take away the rectangular form. Such was the case in Onishi Hall in Gunma.
ORIS: I wanted to emphasize the development from the grid to free form. Control of curved geometry is formally demanding. You didn’t experiment with curved forms only in the plan, but you also started to investigate curving in the section which is another stage in your research.
Sejima: After the museum in Kanazawa I designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York which is a small property and then we continued from the inside space to the city and surroundings. We couldn’t relate the building to the surroundings in a horizontal way. In Kanazawa people can approach from everywhere around the building while the circulation in the New Museum is also flexible around the centre, but in the interior.
ORIS: In the Rolex Learning Centre, the first decision to start to experiment with the curved section was the idea of accessibility and movement through the complex and the position of the entrance. But these decisions radically affected the landscape-like interior configuration. One decision leads to another.
Sejima: Yes, but also from the beginning we tried to make wandering space, how to divide the programmes, the function. It is an attempt to make wandering space, but also how to integrate different activities. The big space is divided into hills but at the same time even the big courtyard divides the building into several spaces. For me it is also a small city of different spaces. In other situations we can have the spaces divided, so that means the next room appears like a kind of a painting.
ORIS: I think you tried to achieve a space which can be perceived as a unity but still maintaining some sort of division.
Sejima: Every area has a different space or a different character and they are connected so people can feel unity, but at the same time if they move from space to space they encounter different atmospheres which connect the different activities, functional activities.
ORIS: You insist on clarity and simplicity of the structural system. When I visited Inujima I could compare how you used a timber structure, steel structure and even plexiglass in a series of small pavilions. For example, I guess the plexiglass walls in the Inujima pavilion are curved because they can carry more weight?
Sejima: Yes. I first designed just four of them but in that case it would need a thickness of 8 cm to support the building. It was expensive and also at the same time the paths on the island are very narrow, they are only for people. The size of the material was very important on Inujima island because only small ships arrive from the sea because it is a very tiny island. Big ships come to Naoshima so we prefabricated lots of elements for the Naoshima ferry terminal in the factory and a big ship brought them directly to the site. Only small ships come to Inujima so the size is defined by the ship, the size of the street and also the crane which was very small. In the plexiglass pavilion the engineer proposed we use more elements of 4 cm and I agreed. For me collaboration with structural engineers is very important.
ORIS: At first glance the pavilions in Inujima seem to be designed for specific artworks but that is actually not the case, it’s the opposite.
Sejima: They are temporary galleries. There is a curator, Yuko Hasegawa, and she can select the art. Only the first exhibition was decided by Soichiro Fukutake, the Chairman of the Board of the Fukutake Foundation. There’s the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival taking place there and the most beautiful season is spring. The second art festival took place in 2013 and the second phase was prepared. It’s a tiny island so we also check what happens. We would like to gradually change it during the next ten years. The third phase is a very, very tiny pass so I am not allowed to make architecture, just to put some stones but in ten years maybe something will change so we or some artists can use it, not necessarily as a gallery. Slowly we will develop the island.
ORIS: I think this is the only possible way to approach Inujima because it is such a small island with tradition and 50 people living there. Actually I saw just a few. They were very polite and helpful and obviously accepted the art pavilions and visitors, but they also still live a traditional quiet life. Visiting Inujima is not only about art but you can also experience a glimpse of life on a remote Japanese island.
Sejima: They care about the island very much I think. When I visited it few years ago, they lived quiet lives, but now old men take care, cleaning the park and maintaining the flowers. There is more care.
ORIS: I think this process of gradual transformation of the environment is like a natural process. You, curator Yuko Hasegawa and the Fukutake Foundation discussed with the local people how to approach the redevelopment, you took their opinions into account.
Sejima: Yes. The area is really beautiful but actually because of its isolation it was used for garbage and medical waste. It is not a well-known fact. Now we must remember that we did such things. This is a serious issue.
ORIS: Do you think that it is possible to revitalise the islands only through art pavilions?
Sejima: I don’t know what will happen 20 or 30 years, this is also a question I ask myself but at the same time we had a big disaster in 2011, the earthquake and tsunami, and I visited many places. Even after the big disaster something remains and I could feel some history at the beach. I started to meet some people and then I realised that people can have the energy to start from this history. I was a visitor so I thought there is nothing, but for them the memory remains. So I realised that in 20 years everyone now living will die in Inujima, but still, if people keep visiting the galleries and try to keep the memory it will stay alive. The buildings were abandoned and they will go down, but now gradually it’s changing. It is very important that people live there and that people come there. One guy has already moved there and started a restaurant. Some small things have happened but if something is moving maybe I think it will be better. This is also one new condition. Naoshima has too many people and many young people packed in their parents’ house. Now they’ve started a restaurant on the island. In future we may find new lifestyles emerging.
ORIS: You said the topography or geography of your buildings is related to the condition of temporary society. You have spoken in some interviews about the relationship between your architecture and the information society and changes that influence our lives. Could you describe in what way?
Sejima: I think that the body has changed. I think that we can feel different things. We are living in a network society, two times are moving in parallel. This is somehow with this type of sense, the perception we maybe got from the information society or networks in society. My body is here but at the same time I could feel I am in a different space.
ORIS: Translation of the multiplicity of perception to architecture can be found in the treatment of transparency, semi-transparency and reflection in your work.
Sejima:Traditionally in Japan we use wood, so it’s not a wall culture but a frame culture. I always feel the difference, so maybe this influences the space or the perception as well.
ORIS: Western tradition thinks about houses as objects and I think traditionally the Japanese don’t think about the house as an object, it is more like existential space.
Sejima: Maybe, not only in Japan but in South Asia. It is also related to the climate, we have lots of humidity and we need lots of natural ventilation, therefore in Asia inside and outside are traditionally more connected.
ORIS: In Asia you don’t have to deal with insulation because of the warm climate.
Sejima: Of course. When I started to make buildings 25 years ago, it was not necessary to put air conditioning in so we used only to put air conditioning for the summer in one or two living rooms. Then gradually we were required to add one more unit to the bedroom but no one imagined putting a unit in the children’s room. Now there is no doubt, it is common. What I also always thought strange is that 25 years ago office space required 500 lux of light in Japan. That is too bright for us, but companies required 500 Lux so we calculated and we made it but now, before the tsunami, 1000 Lux was required and then if we architects don’t plan 1000 Lux for a big company it is our mistake. I was always wondering why, in 25 years, the brightness has doubled. After the tsunami, at least in Japan, maybe it is time to start rethinking these issues, it is really important.
ORIS: Sometimes these periods of crisis actually can contribute to and open up new qualities and values. Even before the tsunami, what was your approach to sustainability in your architectural design?
Sejima: This is difficult because I use a lot of glass. This is very critical. I want to study organization more, not just to think about single parts, I want to know the whole continuity. For example I designed a glass building for Novartis. The energy saving requirements were very strict so we used three layers with a screen, very heavy glass. The material saves energy but at the same time it was expensive. In Japan, we have now started to think about energy efficiency but before we were behind Europe. In Japan traditionally it is very easy to open and close space and maybe there is some loss of energy but at the same time you get some other qualities. So I think it is very important to think how to save energy but I want to know more about organization, the energy cycle. Also, whether architecture is more accepted by the public is also related to sustainability, not only energy but how to relate, or how to care, or how is it going to be used. It is very important to think about the energy and the façade and the ventilation or how to save energy but at the same time to think about existence. If we construct a very sustainable building, I don’t think it is necessarily very sustainable for the human body. So sustainability is very complex but I think it is a very good moment for everyone to start to think from a different point of view, from different professional or different ideas.
ORIS: Because sustainability is not only about energy but there are many different types of sustainability, social sustainability...
Sejima: Yes, it is easy to see how we can save energy but social sustainability is more difficult.
ORIS: When you spoke about this problem regarding the three-layered glass, how much does your architecture depend on detailing and technical solutions? How important is it to the coherence of the building?
Sejima: The structure is definitely very important and the space, then to achieve some environment, maybe also some detail, but mainly we are not that good at using materials I think. We recently started to think how we use materials.
ORIS: Until now you have used quite a reduced palette of materials. Was it an aesthetic decision or did it come from some other source?
Sejima: Yes, aesthetic, and some results are really good. If we can achieve the same thing using only a few materials then we accept only those, but we have think more about the relation to the existing surroundings. If we see a mountain from very far away it is just grim, but if we are close to the mountain then we see every detail or type of trees or the colours or many things. So it depends on the site or the size but until now we have used a bit too little material to fit the surroundings, I think. I like the New Museum. The New Museum is very simple from far away, sometimes in the winter it melts into the sky from far away, then if we are close to the building, gradually an industrial feeling appears and we can see it is not flat, we can see the texture. This industrial texture maybe has a good relation to the surroundings. It is not so outstanding from outside but we can see this industrial texture. We want to provide the building continuity to its surroundings but also in scale. This building is very different from its surroundings but, because of the placing of smaller volumes on top of each other, building the still has some scale, some continuity.
ORIS: And I would say that you bring images taken from the environment into the building. You can use quite simple materials and they not only reflect but also absorb the surroundings. Therefore I’d like to avoid this notion of minimalism. Somehow connotations of minimalism are too related to aesthetics and other visual arts.
Sejima: Minimalism is sometimes too limited.