Interview prepared with Agata Siemionow as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology Dean's Lecture Series. Photography Credits: Illinois Institute of Technology
Grou Serra You practice with SANAA, but also on your own. What is the role of each of your practices?
Kazuyo Sejima In the very beginning, we thought that it is very important that sometimes we collaborate and sometimes we be independent and separate, Nishizawa especially thought so. And maybe still now also, our work is very different. Of course compared to completely different architects, we are very similar but for us there is a big difference between our work. But at the same time, compared to before we are collaborating more. We are getting work nowadays based on our previous work, so it is hard to decide whether to work separately or not. I cannot say so clearly the role, but mainly we work a lot on SANAA projects together but also have our separate work. I don't have an answer to this.
Grou Serra You received a Pritzker prize for your collaborative practice - SANAA, what does this mean to you?
Kazuyo Sejima When I started my own firm in the beginning, Nishizawa joined me very early on in my personal firm. Many ideas we had were developed together as SANAA, which led to us getting bigger projects later on and worked further together as SANAA. This is just a fact. When I was young, I liked working together but maybe it was because I was much more strict and precise I enjoyed working by myself too- Nishizawa probably did too. But nowadays as I grow older, my view on interesting architecture has slightly changed than when I was younger.
Grou Serra So are you less strict now?
Kazuyo Sejima Yes I think so. I really wanted to find meaning in diagrams, structure or composition when I was younger. But now, I am more interested in relations.
Grou Serra One thing we realized is that your drawings are always very simple, almost child-like. Why such an approach?
Kazuyo Sejima It's because we don't know how to draw! [Laughs] Basically I like making the building not so against the body. I like to make things that more smoothly connected to the hand, it is easy (makes sketching gesture) This also continues into the weight of the building, and the distance between things. One point is the aesthetics, but the other point is continuity from the body
Grou Serra In many of your recent buildings you use glass as partitions. What is the role of transparency in your work?
Kazuyo Sejima I think recently it has become less. Glass is important visually but for me it is also about diversity. Mies buildings are also very transparent- like in Crown Hall- studios, offices and conference spaces can happen together. This building allows many things to happen together. When I hear a noise from other activities, it does not disturb me. If it was in a different type of building, sometimes even the smallest noise can be very uncomfortable. But the atmosphere in here allows people to be together while doing different things.
Grou Serra You see the use of white as a neutral, even normal gesture. What role do you give to texture and materials in your architecture?
Kazuyo Sejima I use white a lot- but gradually I have been trying to use the texture of the materials itself. Our planning always try to bring light everywhere. When we use concrete or wood, with light on the materials they appear white. Because the shadows are not as deep, the grey concrete or wood looks white. So in the photographs, they all look white. I like texture as well but it needs much more sensitivity to use.
Evelyn Wong You have simplified and reduced elements in your architecture through the years, can you explain why?
Kazuyo Sejima I think we have changed from before- it might still look simple but it has become more complicated. After the EPFL project, we have been trying to bring smaller scale in. Before, we were trying to find relationship between inside and outside but the concept of the outside was more abstract. For example, with the IIT Campus, we had summarized the environment and abstracted the campus. This is important but now we would see the campus as more diverse- with the chapel and different facades. It is a different way, maybe it is still simple. So now we have different types of facade and our approach on concrete has also changed.
Wiel Arets Had the roof become more important than the facade?
Kazuyo Sejima I don't think the roof had become more important than the facade. Not just the roof, the floor as well.
Grou Serra You mentioned your simple drawings and the easiness to make a curve. Do you relate some of that approach to Paul Klee's work, if you are familiar with him?
Kazuyo Sejima No, not really. I like Matisse and others but I haven't looked at Paul Klee's work seriously.
Grou Serra A lot of your recent building have curves that we don't see as much in your earlier work, how did that develop?
Kazuyo Sejima In earlier work we have used the perfect circle. When things have corners, continuity is cut off, so curves are better. The curve is much closer to our experience. Normally people have said that the circle can be described but the curved form cannot be described by hand. Until now we do not have a way to describe our experiences yet, so the curve is used. The circle is used when we do have a way to describe our experiences. For example, the Louvre Lens has a curve that is not visually perceptible. But I feel that it is very different than a straight line. It is not a formalistic curve, it is from movement and people's walking path. It is more organic.
Grou Serra You deal a lot with thinness in your work. Is this approach about its perception or pushing technology?
Kazuyo Sejima After EPFL, I had realized that the building is difficult to connect to its surrounding even though the shape is organic or when glass is used. That is the starting point. The roof is also cutting, so I tried to reduce the scales to react to each part differently. For example the EPFL has a kindergarten, so I though there are different possibilities of reaction in the kindergarten. So the building becomes very complicated. If the structure is one system, the building has a strong character and appears to be one. At one point I tried to use independent structures, which makes the columns thicker. Before, I always tried to use continuity in the horizontal movement in the roof and floor and used bracing and thick supporting walls. But with independent structures, each spaces can stand independently but also connected. Another thing I tried to do was to being more curves. Before I wanted to make buildings that are integrated into the landscape but now I think buildings itself should be a part of the landscape. It is not about the connection between building and landscape anymore but, Hopefully now the building forgets that it is a building and becomes part of the environment.
Grou Serra Your architecture is usually highly technological and engineered. How much control do you have over form as the architect?
Kazuyo Sejima Compared to earlier, there are more information to be taken care of. More collaboration is necessary nowadays, and I learn a lot from the suggestions although I also try to control many things. In the EPFL plan, the engineers made many simulation on the structure, sound, energy and climate that made the final plan. The many courtyards started as childish sketches, but when we had to make the molds for the curved glass it had become a potato curve made up of nine or ten straight lines. This completely changed the shapes of the courtyards. Also, the positions of the courtyard were compromised because the structural engineers had to find ways to reduce the weight of the structure. The sound engineer also contributed to the final plan with their sound partitions. This was controlled by us but we also could not have made the plan without the many engineering suggestion
Grou Serra You deal a lot with non-hierarchy, diffusion and free circulation in your buildings. Why do you have this approach?
Kazuyo Sejima This has been important for me since the beginning. Light has to come from everywhere to avoid hierarchy. I wanted to make spaces that people can develop reactions and ways to use by themselves. That is why we always keep possibilities of circulation and the entrance. Of course, we can also make a very beautiful private house where one person lives as the king or queen, but a building for 300 people is more interesting. Transparency is diversity and openness. It is important to make a space that different people can spend time together comfortably, where they can imagine and respect differences. To achieve this, the open circulation is important.
Grou Serra It seems that contemporary Japanese architecture - at least from an outsider’s point of view - share similar aesthetics and ideologies. Why do you think that is?
Kazuyo Sejima Compared to European architecture, it may seem similar but for me it is so different. I sometimes criticize. In Europe, if you imagine a space made by this thickness of a wall historically, in Japan it’s much thinner. Dean Arets invited me to the Berlage long ago when I was in my forties. At that time, I tried to explain openness but nobody understood it. And so I slowly realize in European context, openness just means open but in Japan there is a discussion of open and close. Openness didn't mean anything in European. So I think openness was quite a local Japanese term but in the past 20 years more people can relate to this concept of openness.
Wiel Arets How do you define openness? What do you say its openness to you?
Kazuyo Sejima Openness is not just about physicality. At that time, openness in European understanding just means an open space or something open. However in Japan, its more about continuity, sharing and the relationship between people.
Evelyn Wong In Japan, there is a strong respect to continuing legacies- traditions and culture leftover from earlier times, and also Japanese architecture from the beginning of the century
Wiel Arets Do you know that legacy means? It is like the legacy of Mies and what he had left behind.
Kazuyo Sejima Yes, not the influence but the ideas they had left behind.
Wiel Arets Maybe we should talk about Sejima's legacy and what she would like to leave behind? Or we can start with how Sejima understood the question, what are the ideas from the past that she was interested in.
Kazuyo Sejima Japanese architecture was there very naturally. So when I was young, I didn't think of it very seriously. Also, the concept of architecture in Japan started with the Modern movement. In Japan, we didn't think of it as architecture but more structure. Gradually, I realize that there are many things to learn from Japanese architecture and one thing that is important is how to make and construct. Proportion too. The connection between different parts is not hidden in Japanese wooden architecture, it is very clear how force is moved to the ground.
Wiel Arets You work a lot of Sasaki?
Kazuyo Sejima Yes. I really respect Sasaki but sometimes he is too smart. He knew now, a little bit now, he stopped, forget some solution is not so natural. Sometimes he decided with same size and how to achieve this. This makes a strong influence on the building, under the structure we try to bring different diversity. But one system of the structure brings strong influence to whole building. He knew that I doubt him so now it is more interesting.
Wiel Arets What do you think of how people would see your legacy?
Kazuyo Sejima The freedom of people- how to use the space and how it can look enjoyable, hopefully.
Wiel Arets I have a few questions for you. When I say you are maybe the most Japanese of Japanese architects, in terms of tradition, would you agree? The very first works you did and the change later on had a momentum, you started to look into a very Japanese way of tradition such as the tatami. You also went to Kyoto- the lightness, continuation and the free circulation is something you felt strongly towards. There is no other Japanese architect who is doing this. Secondly, you are a woman. I think you have a sensibility in your work, and you seem to avoid coming up with a theory or have references to any example. It is as if you are digesting the Japanese traditions and working along with it. Is there anything you can tell us about the Japanese tradition and you being a woman architect?
Kazuyo Sejima Many of the female architects of my generation in Japan are not so good theoretically.
Wiel Arets There are not many women architects? Before you there was Itsu Katsudawa, but there are only few. You are the only one who came with your own strong language based on Japanese tradition of lightness. Whereas the male architects seem to be more influenced by European architecture?
Kazuyo Sejima When I was young I doubted why architecture is so distant from daily experiences. If I must design architecture, I thought I must forget my daily life. I felt strange, but through this I realize many things while working with Ito-san. I was working as project architect in Ito-san's firm when my parents decided to build a house. It was designed by Ito. When the project was completed, Ito came to my parents' house where my room was also there. It was a very basic house, it was during a time when Ito-san wanted to change his style. So it was really not a sophisticated house. Even so, when Ito-san checked he was surprised by my room. "You designed this house with me, but your room is so girly! What is the connection between your room and our design for this architecture?" For me there was no conflict, it was very continuous!
Wiel Arets Ito designed the house and you were working with Ito on that project?
Kazuyo Sejima Yes! It was the end of my first year when my parents decided to make a house. Instead of asking me, they asked Ito-san! So my parents were my clients, it was very complicated.
Vedran Mimica Ito-san was teaching a studio at Columbia in 1992, apparently he was inspired by your lifestyle at that time?
Wiel Arets By that time you were already independent. I was at Columbia the same year Ito was there.
Kazuyo Sejima Yes, I started my firm in 1987.
Wiel Arets Another thing I would like to mention is that Japanese architecture has a certain lightness to it, you started to have a momentum in lightness. The way you sketch and draw, and the industrial designs you do such as the chair and the tea and coffee set- I think there is a continuation of language that is not normal.
Kazuyo Sejima Not normal?
Wiel Arets When you see Mies' architecture and his chairs, you see two languages. But in your case it is one, it is very interesting. When you see that you slowly see your work becoming more landscape, you can see that your furniture is becoming a part of landscape as well. So I think that your work is extremely domestic- as if you are at home. When you started showing us the un-built areas in Grace Farms, the gardens and landscape, you were very enthusiastic as it was part of your work! Even the small bench. Your work is always related to the body. Some architects starts out building small houses, and then work on bigger projects. You clearly see that at a certain moment they cannot handle it anymore. But in your case, even when the buildings become bigger, you still keep the human scale and domestic feeling, which is very unique. Is this something you think about?
Kazuyo Sejima The possibility of what different scales can do is very different. I don't want to start with the domestic and scale up to big architecture. However at the same time, the domestic itself is not necessary to be made by man. I don't know the precise meaning of the domestic, but it feels natural but made.
Wiel Arets Domestic doesn't mean small for me. It is the feeling of being at home.
Vedran Mimica When you do big buildings, people feel at home.
Kazuyo Sejima People can always find their own private feeling even though they are in a big building. I want to make spaces that people can find places to touch and not feel rejected. Everyone can then start to find ways to connect and make relationships to the spaces in their own ways. At the same time, I want to make small objects or houses that keeps the abstract distance of strongness and comfort.
Wiel Arets There is a strong relationship between people in Ito's firm.
Grou Serra Recently, a lot of architecture firms - including your own - have been criticized in the way they behave towards their employees. Do you feel this criticism is justified?
Wiel Arets How did this question came about, is it a personal feeling?
Grou Serra It is not a criticism, just in general today- a lot of interns complain about not being well-treated in an office, and that is what the question asks.
Kazuyo Sejima It is a fact that young people- at least in Japan, don't go to smaller firms. They prefer going to the big firms. When we were young, we had the dream to be involved. Young people now want to be in more fields such as fashion and design, not just architecture.
Wiel Arets You had a dream before. What is the second part of your career?
Kazuyo Sejima I am turning sixty at the end of this month. The meaning of turning sixty in Japan is very important and special. I did not have any special feelings before this. However, my friend had just passed away suddenly a few days ago. Before I thought I would just continuing making architecture according to what I believe in, but in the last few days I started to think that somehow I have a responsibility - to stop running and conclude something.