Skip to content

The Things Architects Do #3: SANAA

Post date:

Recently I came across a 2006 project by SANAA for 176 social housing units in Paris. I’ve coloured the typical floor plan so you can see better how the building is organised.

typical plan

The first thing to notice is how inept the apartment planning. Japanese kitchens can be small but using them in social housing in France is – how shall I say? – both culturally and socially insensitive. Other things I take issue with are the position of said kitchens, lack of defined entrances to apartments, the number of bedrooms accessed directly from living rooms (and the resultant lack of wall space), the poor useability of what space there is (because of the curves creating triangular spaces), the closeness of some of those opposing windows … And so on. These are all negatives.

So what are the positives? For what benefits has the apartment planning been compromised so? The answer is in the ground floor plan and the image following it.

groundfloor plan sanaa paris

SANAA seem to have been working to emphasise some blobby open area that is half landscape and half undercroft of a building supported by very slender columns – perhaps an omage to Corbusier and pilotis?  Stranger things have been known to happen. Here’s how they finally did it for the 2009 Serpentine Pavilion in London.


It’s their only architectural idea. In Paris, the single-mindedness of carrying it out is responsible for the cores being see-through. In the plan, the blobs within blobs at ground level are bicycle cages that are also trying not to be seen in this elevation.


Only in this perspective is any cross-bracing visible. Once.

ground level view

SANAA were awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2010.

For architecture that is simultaneously delicate and powerful, precise and fluid, ingenious but not overly or overtly clever; for the creation of buildings that successfully interact with their contexts and the activities they contain, creating a sense of fullness and experiential richness; for a singular architectural language that springs from a collaborative process that is both unique and inspirational; for their notable completed buildings and the promise of new projects together, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa are the recipients of the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize. See <a href=””>here</a> for what else the jury said.

English: The 2009 Summer Pavilion at the Serpe...
English: The 2009 Summer Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. The pavilion is designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the architecture firm SANAA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They explore like few others the phenomenal properties of continuous space, lightness, transparency and materiality to create a subtle synthesis,” the jury citation said. “Sejima and Nishizawa’s architecture stands in direct contrast with the bombastic and rhetorical. Instead, they seek the essential qualities of architecture that result in a much appreciated straightforwardness, economy of means and restraint in their work. (New York Times)

Their blob+skinny column combo has been given another/a third dimension with their recent Rolex Learning Center for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. It looks like it’s been a struggle to make it useable/DDA compliant.



The next project I’d like you to have a look at is their Moriyama House/s from 2005. In the photo below, you’re looking down the first vertical corridor from the left, in plan.


If the stairs are drawn correctly, then two of these apartments have basements. One of them (the one with the double doors at the bottom of this plan) doesn’t seem to have a bathroom. Does the person who lives there not shit or bathe? I thought they might share the bathroom of the people immediately left, but there’s a wall of plants in the way. (This all may seem a bit strange but in the rural cities and even the older parts of Tokyo, it’s not unusual in the evenings to see people dressed in yukatas carrying their shower gel and shampoo on the way to the public bath. These houses are at Tokyo-to, Ota-ku, Nishi-Kamata 3-chome, 21-5. It’s not that central, but not that out of the way either.)


Even if there is a public bath nearby, there’s still no w.c. …

Sanaa plan moriyama

There’s a certain amount of DNA in common with the French project in that it’s possible to claim that the emphasis is on “the spaces between the buildings”. Which it probably is, but it still doesn’t excuse the poverty of the spaces within the buildings. For six detached dwellings, there’s a disturbing insufficiency of toilets although the shared, glazed communal bathroom above the centre-most large tree is guaranteed media attention in the more uptight cultures. Just when Japanese were finally getting used to washing machines inside their houses and not on their balcony, Sanaa have provided a couple of external washing machines.

In Japan, and contrary to what these plans imply, the actual paraphernalia of living is collected and organised into a million and one different types of plastic storage units that are stacked and hung wherever they can be because there’s just never enough space in a kitchen to store things like banana holders (available at your nearest DAISO).

gimg_01All in all, for a practice formed in 1995, SANAA haven’t done too bad for themselves. From zero to Pritzker in 15 years, it seems. And good for them.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize is awarded annually to honour “a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture”. [W]

But “consistent and significantly contributes to humanity and the built environment”?
I still have doubts. Here’s their 21 Century Museum of Modern Art (2004). There’s a good description of it here.

21st_century_museum_of_contemporary_art1304831276028 3941967972

Others have picked up on an interest with views into and out of the site/building. Another descriptor I’ve frequently come across is “ordered chaos”. With this project I can see what they mean. And in this next one too – the Kunstlinie from 2006.


The Kunstlinie was designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Japanese office SANAA. The office took part, in association with Onno Greiner Martien of Goor Architecten, in a limited competition organised by the municipality of Almere, which they won in 1999. The collaboration ended there. The scheme was eventually elaborated and executed according to a Design & Build contract by Ballast Nedam for 43 million euro. Ballast Nedam says it implemented a number of changes. Dimensioned for Japanese people, the design was rescaled to suit the longer Dutch physique. The whole complex was raised by 40 cm when it was discovered that there was a real risk of flooding. The slender design didn’t take sound insulation or stability sufficiently into account. [thanks Archined]

Now, SANAA won the competition for this building in 1999, four years after the practice began so it made their name so to speak.  The Pritzker jury gave it a special mention.

They often opt for non-hierarchical spaces, or in their own words, the “equivalence of spaces,” creating unpretentious, democratic buildings according to the task and budget at hand. One example is the Almere project in the Netherlands, with its many simple classrooms and workshops, all presenting privileged views of the sea.

I wouldn’t say that ALL of the many simple classrooms and workshops have privileged views of the sea, but I get what they mean about the non-hierarchical spaces. This, I think, is one of their selling points or at least it was in 1999.


Using one room to get to another room leads to increased spatial efficiency as long as there aren’t too many doors  – such as in the case of the apartments in the French social housing at the beginning of this blog.  Another bad point about the French social housing project was presenting views into the site as a asset.

SANAAAA_1To me, this says a lot about their priorities. This next project the Okurayama Apartments says the same thing. Here’s a plan courtesy of openbuildings and here’s some text from the architect. I invite you to have a walk through the plans.


Internally, the curved walls give each unit a unique profile and private views. The irregular shapes work because the apartments aren’t subdivided into smaller rooms, but to make furnishing them easier Sejima gave each room two straight walls. For Naoko Kawachi, a resident of the building, the nonlinearity is a space-planning advantage. “Put­ting a table or placing shelves against the curved wall creates angles in the room that are a natural place for having dinner or reading books,” she says, before offering the ultimate endorsement for Sejima’s design. “The curves in the glass make the boundary between the garden and the room ambiguous, so you experience the outside and indoors closely  together. [metropolismag]

This endorsement sort of takes the steam out of my “doing right by the occupant” argument but this is not social housing. Indeed, there are some nice interiors – pre-occupant, of course.

new tenant waiting for her stuff to arrive

But if we put this photo from <a “href=””>dashmark

dsc_1430together with this one, then I think I know what they’re up to.

Here’s my possibly pretentious meta-reading, my way of understanding what SANAA are offering the world of architecture (if not humanity) and why they’ve been fêted for it so readily. It’s basically an extension of the misfits view of architectural history.

At the end of the 19th century, the market for architecture was dying out. There simply weren’t enough rich people for all the large country mansions architects were skilled in designing. Luckily, architecture, architects and the owners of department stores found each other. Houses for rich people got smaller. The new rich people wanted to live closer to the city anyway. Architecture’s role as an ornament in a landscape became less important as there was now a new preoccupation as “space” suddenly became an object of architectural interest and pretence. So much for the 20th century.

Now we’re in the 21st century, people can’t aspire to looking at anything like a view from their windows. The old trick of full-height glass (to bring the outside inside) only works when there’s an outside worth bringing inside. We can probably forget about interior space. In my view, the French project and the Moriyama house/s reveal a preoccupation with forcibly creating exterior spaces to compensate for the miserable spatial allocation we will no doubt feel lucky to have. Sanaa are showing us that we’ll only get enough internal volume for us and what stuff we own and that’s it. It won’t be worth photographing. What will be worth photographing is the cutesey communal property and circulation space between these boxes. Basically, they have invented value-added alleyways. The focus of architecture is now circulation space that is all the better for not being enclosed. We’ll learn to live with this and, someday, actually come to prefer it in much the same way as we did open plan kitchen-dining-living rooms.



    • I’m always interested in projects where the business of habitation is reduced to what’s absolutely necessary. Some choose to hide or disguise the bed. Some choose to do away with the kitchen. I remember some tiny house that was on display (complete with live ‘inhabitant’) in Selfridges’ Oxford Street window. In 20 sqm or so, a cooker with a stainless steel hood was still regarded as essential. For some people it’s that, for others it’s being able to watch television in bed with attendant soft furnishings. I’ve just added to this post. Sanaa will move on to bigger and more bloated things in much the same way as Ando did. It will be well photographed and capable of being built for far less than the equivalent Ando. Architecture will have moved on. Sanaa’s contribution to architecture will have been to shift the focus away from internal space (who can afford it anyway?!) and back outside towards value-added alleyways. Why have private courtyards á la Ando when you can get back to Nature with communal circulation space? A brilliant and timely invention.