BY Helen Chang in Influences | 01 SEP 10
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Issue 133

Changing Spaces

For the first time in its history, the Director of the Venice Architecture Biennale is a woman: acclaimed architect Kazuyo Sejima

BY Helen Chang in Influences | 01 SEP 10

Rolex Learning Centre, Lausanne, Switzerland, 2010. Courtesy: SANAA, Tokyo.

When I asked Paolo Baratta whether the decision to appoint Kazuyo Sejima to direct the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale had to do with the fact that she is a woman, he replied, ‘Yes, a little’. He then hesitated – although it was the slightest of hesitations, for he is a well-respected captain of industry, a former statesman and the current President of the Biennale – before continuing: ‘There might,’ he said, ‘be a connection with the main reason why we chose her, which is of course not because she is a woman, but there is a possibility, which I’ll try to explain to you.’ And so the search for clarification, the nebulous connections between this year’s Biennale and its first-ever female director, begins.

While women have outnumbered men for most of history, it’s men who have been responsible for designing almost all of our built environment (major exceptions being prehistoric settlements, such as Malta, where architecture was left to women). To break with custom is to raise the question: why change now? Is it only coincidence that Sejima – having been charged with the mandate of the Biennale to analyze and show all that is relevant in architecture today – is only the second woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (which she was awarded, along with her partner at sanaa, Ryue Nishizawa, this spring)?

Architect Margrit Kennedy sought an answer to this question in her 1981 essay ‘Seven Hypotheses on Female and Male Principles in Architecture’: ‘Two factors, in combination, make possible the reintroduction of the female principle: the increasingly apparent limits of growth, vanishing resources, and inadequacy of the linear approach.’ (The second, more obvious, factor she cited was the growing number of women entering architectural practice.)

Limits of growth and scarce resources are by now uncomfortably apparent. Speculation prompted by the financial crisis – such as ‘What if Women Ran Wall Street’, an inquiry in the 21 March 2010 issue of New York magazine into stock-market volatility and the male ego – appeared to support Kennedy’s hypothesis. The architecture world’s equivalent might be the male-dominated ‘starchitect’ system, which has been sedimenting over the last two decades. It’s not accidental that Sejima’s Biennale theme, ‘People Meet in Architecture’, isn’t concerned with signature styles or linear approaches, but with architecture as a means of communicating rather than an end in itself.

Baratta says Sejima’s work resonated with him when he considered the ancient Roman concept of res publica. Roughly translated, this means ‘commonwealth’ and denotes all that we possess but don’t own: public squares and buildings, the space in which we live and the very air we breathe. Clearly, something has gone wrong with our notion of the public good, Baratta says, but to argue that ‘female values’ are inclined more towards the public sphere is dubious: are women biologically predisposed to design differently? Even more importantly, is space actually gendered? Less shy than non-confrontational, Sejima mostly avoids discussing gender. Her buildings, however, answers these questions with an emphatic ‘yes’: a man’s relationship to space is unlike that of a woman’s.

Sejima’s first contribution to the Venice Biennale was as curator of the 2000 Japanese Pavilion, ‘City of Girls’, for which Dutch photographer, Hellen van Meene shot carefully styled teenage girls. The photographs are seductive and complicit in a disturbing way, especially considering Japan’s obsession with schoolgirls. But the girls’ eyes – mostly closed or looking askance – resist objectification: what does it mean to look out of a window, to lie by a river or see the city through the eyes of a teenage girl as opposed, say, to a middle-aged man? As one might guess, it means in part to draw the curtain on another, parallel universe. The hinted worlds of Japanese girls aren’t coherent, but they constitute, among other things, the undefined and undetermined spaces that Sejima alludes to and elicits in her work. These are spaces that cannot claim a universal subjectivity.

According to Jane Rendell, Director of Architectural Research at the Bartlett, Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London, the most pervasive representation of gendered space is one where women are associated with the home and men are associated with the dominant public sphere. This paradigm of ‘separate spheres which divide city from home, public from private, production from reproduction, and men from women’ is ‘both patriarchal and capitalist’, Rendell writes in Gender and Architecture (2000). Spaces within this paradigm are governed by efficiency and function. In Tokyo, for instance, economic pressure means it’s hard to find a vacant lot. There are few leftover spaces that would even give shelter to cats, or any other beings who aren’t essential to the system, according to architect Momoyo Kaijima of Atelier Bow-Wow.

But Sejima doesn’t simply reverse the binary terms of the paradigm (i.e., men inside, women outside), she takes aesthetic and political positions so that previously undefined spaces materialize. In one of her earliest projects, the Saishunkan Seiyaku Women’s Dormitory (1991), the idea was to foster camaraderie among first-year women trainees at a Japanese company. Sejima may have taken this to the extreme (the building was criticized for resembling a jail). But using a strategy that would recur again and again in her work, she freed the relationships and programmes in the space from their usual conventions, forcing the users to think, act and move differently. Here, a central living space was maximized at the expense of the bedrooms, which are just large enough to sleep in, four to a room. All other activities are pushed into the communal space. The building becomes a microcosm of a city, supplying possibilities for interaction that seldom exist in male-dominated Japan.

The private mingles even more extremely with the public in the Gifu Kitagawa Apartment Building (2000). The washbasin is placed in the centre of the apartment, and in front of a south-facing window that is also in full view of another apartment block. Akira Suzuki, Professor of Architecture at the Kobe Design Museum, has speculated that the home is planned around the daughter, the member of the family ‘most concerned with keeping her face in tip-top shape for presentation to the outside world’, and compares it to one of Cindy Sherman’s works, also with a young woman in front of a mirror and exposed to the external gaze.

Ultimately, the work of Sejima, as well as that of sanaa, shows an incredible belief in the potency of space. Rather than formulate explicit political positions, spaces are organized in order that new behaviours and manifold connections emerge. Take the circular 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa (2004). You can traverse it without paying admission: its free-standing galleries are designed in a non-hierarchical way, creating continuous interstitial spaces that act as a living room for the city – a public space that is rarely found in Japan. The newly opened Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne combines Kanazawa’s horizontality with the vertical relations of New York’s New Museum (2007) on the Bowery, resulting in a building landscape where control is undermined and user participation encouraged to an even greater degree.

These are things to think about when in Venice for the Biennale this year. If it takes a woman to offer alternative ways of structuring space, it is thanks to both coincidence and intention. Sejima makes spaces that can be grasped through moods, feelings and instincts, that are less hermetic and more connected to individuals’ psychological and social lives. These are places that try to reflect individuals as well as the body of society, in order to make the full meaning of our experiences visible.

Helen Chang is a writer based in Vienna.