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Sejima and Nishizawa at the New Museum

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Model of “Flower House,” Suiza, Switzerland (2006 – ), Courtesy SANAA

By Martin Filler, Guest Blogger

The trouble with most architecture exhibitions is that,
unlike shows on other, readily transportable art forms, it’s almost impossible
to display actual examples of this immovable medium within a conventional
gallery context. Models, photographs, videos, drawings, plans, and even
mock-ups of architectural details can only approximate the real thing somewhere

One brilliant solution was pioneered by the Museum of Modern Art during the
1940s and 1950s, when it erected full-scale model houses in the garden of its
midtown Manhattan premises. (That long-dormant practice is about to revived
with MoMA’s Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling show, which opens
in July and features five full-scale structures on the vacant lot west of
museum, future site of a 75-story residential highrise–with 40,000 sq. ft. of
new MoMA galleries in its lower portion– by the 2008 Pritzker Prize winner,
Jean Nouvel.)

A refreshing
exception to the museological problem of conveying the essence of architecture
is SANAA: Works 1998-2008, now on view at New York’s New Museum of
Contemporary Art through June 15. To be sure, a show housed in a major work by
the same designers it highlights has built-in advantages, but it’s no guarantee
of success. For example, the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, mounted a
2002 retrospective on the 30th anniversary of its revered Louis Kahn
building, but the architecture so overwhelmed Kahn’s’ unprepossessing drawings
and models that they seemed superfluous.

Wisely, the
current SANAA show avoids the self-congratulatory air of the Guggenheim’s
hugely popular 2001 Frank Gehry survey, with its thinly disguised premise of
promoting the architect’s then-pending Lower Manhattan branch for that museum.
The modesty of the New Museum’s ten-year overview of work by SANAA’s
principals, Kazuo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (whose initials form the acronym
for their Tokyo-based firm, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) befits the
pair’s delicate aesthetic. Models of their buildings bear no resemblance to
typically slick presentation mock-ups by commercial architects. Instead, the
humble materials and rudimentary facture
of these three-dimensional renderings capture the spirit of SANAA’s minimalist
approach to perfection. 

Sejima and
Nishizawa both pursue individual commissions in addition to joint projects, but
this show demonstrates that neither collaborator holds a monopoly on design
talent. In a rare reversal of their profession’s still entrenched gender bias,
the 52-year-old Sejima has been more lionized then her decade-younger
colleague, with whom she began working in 1995. But Nishizawa’s strong solo
efforts prove he is her equal in understanding how fine calibrations of proportion
and choice of materials affect the expressive power of form.

Although Sejima
and Nishizawa remain unapologetic purists they are no joyless puritans, as is evident
in the playful design objects–including their Flower and Rabbit chairs,
Hanahana flower stand and other home furnishings–that give the New Museum’s
already welcoming ground floor an even more engaging aura this spring.

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