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March 29, 2010

Kazuyo Sejima (just the second woman ever!) and Ryue Nishizawa of the Japanese architecture firm SANAA were awarded the 2010 Pritzker Prize. The pair (just the second duo to win the Pritzker Prize) were certainly no surprise as winners; critics and colleagues have feted their work for well over a decade. Though the many of their buildings are in Japan, big recent hits like the 2007 New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City and the just-opened Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland have helped the define the pair's stripped-down, gentlry monochrome aesthetic. Call them reluctant expressionists, or maybe winking formalists, Sejima and Nishizawa's win was well-deserved, and a fine reminder that not every building (nor every architect) should employ thoughtless bombast or come off as a bit of sculpture writ large. 

Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima, right.
Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima, right.
1 / 10
Boxy and defined by just a bit of chromatic variation, the facade of the De Kunstlinie Theater and Cultural Center in Almere, the Netherlands, looks out on the sea.
Boxy and defined by just a bit of chromatic variation, the facade of the De Kunstlinie Theater and Cultural Center in Almere, the Netherlands, looks out on the sea.
2 / 10
Perhaps a more ordered precursor for the New Museum in New York, this Dior shop in Tokyo from 2003 is a good example of SANAA's subtle shift in scale, color, and porousness.
Perhaps a more ordered precursor for the New Museum in New York, this Dior shop in Tokyo from 2003 is a good example of SANAA's subtle shift in scale, color, and porousness.
3 / 10
Spare and round, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan is from 2004.
Spare and round, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan is from 2004.
4 / 10
Here is the undulating, topographical form of the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland. The building opened in 2009 and is the latest addition to the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.
Here is the undulating, topographical form of the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland. The building opened in 2009 and is the latest addition to the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.
5 / 10
The New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York resembles a haphazardly stacked set of boxes. It was at one point adorned with a rainbow-colored sign that read "Hell, Yes." That's roughly how I responded when I learned Sejima and Nishizawa won the Pritzke
The New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York resembles a haphazardly stacked set of boxes. It was at one point adorned with a rainbow-colored sign that read "Hell, Yes." That's roughly how I responded when I learned Sejima and Nishizawa won the Pritzker.
6 / 10
The O-Museum in Nagano, Japan is some of SANAA's earlier work. This building is from 1999. Nishizawa, at 44, is the youngest winner of the Pritzker Prize.
The O-Museum in Nagano, Japan is some of SANAA's earlier work. This building is from 1999. Nishizawa, at 44, is the youngest winner of the Pritzker Prize.
7 / 10
Another humble building in the face of a lovely landscape, the Naoshima Ferry Terminal in Naoshima, Kagawa, Japan was completed in 2006.
Another humble building in the face of a lovely landscape, the Naoshima Ferry Terminal in Naoshima, Kagawa, Japan was completed in 2006.
8 / 10
Concrete and glass carry the day in SANAA's 2006 Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany.
Concrete and glass carry the day in SANAA's 2006 Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany.
9 / 10
Though Columbus, Ohio, might still lay claim to the best architecture in one of our flattest states, Toledo puts in a proper bid with SANAA's Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Though Columbus, Ohio, might still lay claim to the best architecture in one of our flattest states, Toledo puts in a proper bid with SANAA's Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art.
10 / 10
Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima, right.
Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima, right.

Via Twitter I had speculated that this year's prize might go to the very high-profile Santiago Calatrava (I'd posit he's the biggest name in the game not yet to win one), or perhaps the tech-minded Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, or even to Sejima and Nishizawa's countryman Shigeru Ban. I'm glad I didn't put any money down.

I've only been to one SANAA building, and seen a seconed from afar. On a trip to Switzerland last year I spied from a significant distance a building they've designed for Weil am Rhein, Germany Vitra campus, but got to take a hard-hat tour of the then-under-construction Rolex Learning Center.

A massive new addition to the campus of the Lausanne engineering school, EPFL, the Rolex Learning Center was just a massive, undulating concrete shell when I saw it. Clad in a hard-hat, reflective vest and knee-high Wellies to better tromp through the collected puddles, my group wended our way over exposed rebar and miles of hoses and pipes. Nonetheless, the formal vision was clear. The curving pedastal had a topography of its own, one mirrored by the actual structure, which dipped and rose like some organic spacecraft above us.

Views from the central courtyard stretched straight out to the massive mountains nearby. That the local tectonics were a point of departure is manifest, and to all their grandeur, the Rolex Learning Center gracefully deferred deference. SANAA seem to have a knack for that, letting the landscape win in all aesthetic clashes, as though their desire to create a spectacle is inversely propotional to the surrounding natural beauty. If the the Alps near Lausanne are meant to the be star, then the Rolex Learning Center is happy to be a foothill, or better yet, the landscape's slow incline, the lakeside plane reaching up, slowly and humbly, to the majestic mountains beyond.

I've not been back since the structure has been completed so my sense of things is still very much colored by the possibility of what it would become, though the pictures I've seen of the completed building certainly live up to what was proposed. I'll have to get to the New Museum on my next trip to New York, which I'm sure will come before I get back to Swiss soil.

Check out this slideshow for a quick overview of SANAA's work.

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