Big square windows appear to have landed at random on the walls of the Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany, as if dropped there by a passing breeze. It’s the work of Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who yesterday won their profession’s most prestigious award.
The pair was given the Pritzker Prize by the Hyatt Foundation in Chicago. They will share the $100,000 prize, given annually since 1979 for “significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.” Sejima and Nishizawa will be presented the award in a May 17 ceremony on Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
Sejima, born in 1956, and Nishizawa, born in 1966, are principals of the Tokyo-based architecture firm SANAA. In their work for museums, universities and companies such as Christian Dior SA and Novartis AG, their highly formal design process has produced buildings of compelling authority. In others, especially New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, the result has been a parched minimalism.
Their long, narrow O Museum in Nagano, Japan, bends just enough to nestle into its extraordinary historic setting. The Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio is so diaphanous it barely seems to exist. Visitors wander among curving, uninterrupted walls of glass, with the shifting reflections highlighting the exhibits and workshops.
That quality comes from an intensely cerebral process that strips away the extraneous. The light fixtures and devices that poke out of the ceilings and walls of conventional buildings vanish in buildings designed by Sejima and Nishizawa.
At the Zollverein School, squares of perfect concrete roof frame the sky’s passing clouds, though human occupation of the building seems incidental.
As they have received larger, more prestigious commissions, their designs have grown steadily more introverted, with a perfectionism that’s technically demanding and an expression that’s sensuously baroque.
The Rolex Learning Center, at the Federal Polytechnic of Lausanne, Switzerland, is a low square building that undulates like a blanket that’s being shaken out. The rippling floor plane continues inside, where students find their way from the library to cafes along bulging floors and zigzagging ramps. The various spaces invite entry by seeping into each other.
The New Museum looks like a stack of giant boxes, each slightly misaligned from the ones above and below it. The structure contrasts appealingly with the scruffy brick of its Bowery surroundings. Inside, the cubic galleries feel generic.
While I can’t fault the Pritzker jury on narrow aesthetic grounds, this is the second straight year that the award has gone to inward-looking architects who create rarefied beauty. Last year’s winner, Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor, is known for designing buildings of primordial calm in remote settings.
At a time of profound challenges in the field, when buildings can make significant contributions to the environment and house the world’s homeless, the Pritkzer is sending a message that architecture is mostly an aesthetic refuge. That’s a disservice.
(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)