Kazuyo Sejima’s works are cool-headed depictions of the social alienation of her generation. She was born in Ibaraki prefecture, Japan, in 1956 and studied at Japan Women’s University, receiving an undergraduate degree from the Housing Department in 1979 and a master’s degree in architecture in 1981. On completing her studies, she joined the firm Toyo Ito Architect and Associates, where she worked from 1981 until she established her own office in 1987. While with Ito, her most notable contributions wer as the project architect for Pao (1985), a set of furnishings to accommodate the nomadic, consumerist lifestyles of contemporary Japanese women. Although Sejima now repudiates this project, the interpretation of society that it represents remains closer to the outlook in her subsequent work than to Ito’s. In particular, Sejima continues to place an emphasis on emotionally unencumbered movement supported by functional flexibility.
Sejima also acknowledges Ito’s influence in her material vocabulary, especially translucent films on glass, bright aluminum finishes, and attenuated steel structures. However, a concern with light and reflectance has led Sejima to experiment with wrapping buildings in a broader palette of unusual components and to using novel approaches toward materials. Examples include polycarbonate panels at Y House (1994), S House (1996), and M House (1997); patterned films applied to clear glass, with written characters at the N Museum (1997), leaflike patterns at the Koga Municipal Park Cafe (1998), or a rough striping referring to wood grain at the O Museum (1999); and reflective louvers intended to create a collage of images by mirroring the sky and the ground against the backdrop of interior activities at Hitachi Reflé (1998). Aesthetically, these materials combine with flat, white surfaces to create an architecture that is luminous and photogenic, contributing to her early recognition abroad.
Sejima’s 1990 design for a corporate residence, the Saishunkan Seiyaku Women’s Dormitory (part of a series of well-publicized projects in the “Kumamoto Artpolis”), brought her instantaneously to international attention. She impassively proposed an architectural embodiment of the disciplined communal lifestyles of the women employee residents, eschewing private space in favor of a polished, airy communal area. Limited sleeping areas for four are ordered with military precision behind frosted glass, after Sejima’s earlier proposals for a single large sleeping space proved too shocking.
Residential work remains Sejima’s most provocative. She describes herself as designing for a new genus of family, one not always blood relatives or having any sort of consistent structure or stability. Because of this, her designs lack sentimentality, studiously avoiding privileging a location that celebrates the family unit, such as the hearth or kitchen. Rather, her housing is organized in a way more reminiscent of corporate environments: members of the household come together mostly in corridors, while on the move, and individual private rooms, intended as bedrooms, have the uniformity and barrenness of offices. These rooms often have folding doors or pivoted shutters that allow the line between the common and private rooms to be adjusted. She thus further reduces the private character of individual rooms: the walls between sleeping spaces and more conventionally public areas are more or less permeable, as users like.
Critics fear that Sejima’s unruffled celebration of homogeneity is coldly prescient. Less well recognized is that she mitigates these qualities by creating a defensive boundary between residents and the outside, an approach that she shares with other Japanese architects, such as Tadao Ando. In her work since 1993, this intention has been reflected in establishing a core living space with little connection to the exterior and has resulted in buildings where major spaces are below ground or where the exterior envelope is almost entirely translucent, cutting off any views beyond the building envelope. Although Westerners often see such designs as unusually harsh, they fit comfortably within conventional Japanese residential expectations. However, in recent nonresidential projects, Sejima has returned to an approach seen in her earliest residential designs, extending interior space into the landscape.
Much of Sejima’s work to date has been commissioned by architects or clients associated with the arts community, and her museum and studio spaces are also notable. The Multi-Media Studio (1996) and N Museum have the same purity seen in Sejima’s residential work, especially in their minimalism and contextual detachment. Sejima’s proposal for an addition to the Sydney Museum of Art (1997) is her first overseas commission, although the project has stalled. (A theater and culture center for Almere, the Netherlands, designed in 1999, may ultimately be completed first.) Notably, in Sejima’s oeuvre, retail and corporate facilities are unremarkable, in part because the strategies that make her residential work extraordinary are more commonplace in the building type.
Although sometimes described as ahistoric because of the abstraction of her work, Sejima identifies closely with modernism but intensifies its formal effects. Ito’s work has been a crucial foil for her: the remarkable Platform I (1988) and Platform II (1990) seem to have been designed in response to Ito’s Silver Hut (1984), whereas the Villa in the Forest (1994) builds on Ito’s White U (1976). Notably, Silver Hut and White U were for Ito’s family and among his most challenging early works, whereas Sejima was able to go further in her very first projects, with nonfamilial clients. Conventional prototypes also serve as inspiration: in the Gifu Kitagata Apartments (Phase I, 1998), a public housing complex, Sejima acknowledges the influence of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation and Espirit Nouveau. Al-though there are no direct connections, Sejima’s abstraction also leads to her being identified with the Shinohara School.
Because Sejima emphasizes the intuitive side of her design process, the disciplined structural innovations found in her buildings are less often noted. In the Police Box at Chofu Station (1994), for example, Sejima worked with the eminent engineer Matsui Gengo, using a cylindrical room to create lateral stability while allowing for an uninterrupted glass surface running the length of the roof and opposite exterior walls. Her Koga Municipal Park Cafe is enclosed with a strikingly thin roof and nearly nonexistent walls, the result of recent collaborations with Mutsuro Sasaki. This project will perhaps begin to draw more attention to Sejima’s structural sophistication.
Almost since the inception of the office, Ryue Nishizawa has worked closely with Sejima. Recently, the two architects have begun to characterize all projects since the beginning of the Multi-Media Studio in 1995 as the works of the firm Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa and Associates, although these have often been published only in Sejima’s name. Although Sejima and Nishizawa intend to continue their collaborations, Nishizawa also established his own firm in 1998. Both have said that they will design projects independently of the partnership.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.