With the completion of the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in 2006, and additions to the New Museum of Contemporary in New York City and Valencia, Spain's modern art museum--IVAM--currently under construction, Tokyo-based SANAA has garnered world-wide attention. Architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, each with distinguished careers of their own, founded the firm and started working collectively in 1995. Known for work that is "luminous and minimal in its aesthetics," Architectural Lighting editor Elizabeth Donoff spoke with senior associate Florian Idenburg, currently overseeing the firm's U.S. work, about SANAA's approach to architecture and light.
A|L: SANAA has just completed the first of a trio of museums. Each is different, yet they all have an awareness of light. How does the studio think about Architecture and its integration with light?
FLORIAN IDENBURG: Light is a very complex issue. Light is the element that makes Architecture. You need light in order to make anything visible, but it's also something you have to control, especially in museums. Obviously there are the art requirements and the issues of conservation--how you protect different types of art being displayed--but there are also the cultural aspects in the way light is being used. We've built a number of museums, and in every one the way the light is being applied is different. I think it has to do with the culture of where we are building.
A|L: What is SANAA's approach for IVAM in Valencia? How are you using light?
FI: We were asked to increase the useable space without touching the existing museum, and they wanted to stay operational during construction. When we came to Valencia the first time, it was the height of summer. The sun was incredibly bright and too hot to be outside. We were fascinated by the big, open, covered markets in Valencia, in particular the Mercado Central--the main market--with the light that comes through the large cast iron arches. This space was very inspirational for us--when the light is filtered through, between inside and outside. For the IVAM museum what we did was in essence to wrap the building in a skin that filters the light and creates somewhat of a shade, yet allows for wind, rain, and sun to go through. It's a metal skin, which is perforated, but the way the perforations are designed, based on our sun diagram studies, they are all angled so the interior of the museum, the artwork, and people are never in direct sun. That was definitely a local influence on us in our thinking of how we wanted to treat the light coming into the building.
A|L: You mentioned the cultural differences you have come across in building in different countries. What is your impression of what Light means in Spain?
FI: Light, and of course I am speculating a bit because I am not Spanish myself, has an incredible power. It can be very strong. In Valencia the contrast is very high between the bright and the dark, between the incredible narrow hot spaces of the street and the big old churches, which are very cool. Light there, culturally, is very much about contrast. If for instance you compare that to Japan, light is much more even, continuous, and with less contrast, because it is generally more overcast. In Japan there is this idea that light is diffuse.
A|L: How do the two museum projects in the United States compare to the work in Spain?
FI: The two museums in the U.S. are almost the opposite of how we deal with light at IVAM. Toledo is a museum for glass art standing in a natural setting accessible from all sides. When the curators came to us in Japan for preliminary discussion, the subject of light came up immediately, because everyone has such a specific approach to it. We asked about the limitations for using light with glass objects. Glass is incredibly strong; you can expose it to daylight with very little negative impact, except for perhaps on some colored glass, but its nothing like drawings. We were very excited by this, it gave us the opportunity to completely rethink they way we could make a museum. It also created the possibility to have curved glass walls, which is the absolute worst condition when you think of a museum--you can't hang anything on a glass wall. The great thing about the Glass Pavilion is that the art enabled a way to make the Architecture.
Early on in the design process we came to the conclusion that we would try to have as many glass walls as possible, and we would have as much natural light as possible. We then oriented the space in such a way that the spaces would never have direct sunlight--they are all on the north side of the building. The glass making facilities are on the south side toward the more active street, in keeping with the museum's goal to have people see this activity, but where we had a number of beautiful old trees that shaded and cut the direct sun.
A|L: Are you always looking for the site and surrounding context to help inform the project layout?
FI: You can't just depend solely on natural light, although we would love to, it's always trying to make sure you have the right balance between natural and electrical light. The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York is definitely a case where this is an important issue. Because it is such a narrow site, we needed to stack the galleries, but how do you get natural light into a stack of volumes? We learned from our experience with the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan--where each gallery has its own skylight--you can light contemporary art with natural light. For New York, by shifting the boxes in relation to one another, we create a skylight location and the opportunity to create a different lighting condition. Its about trying to find the right balance between the amount of daylight that comes in on one side of the gallery, and how to balance that with electric light so that it doesn't seem like there is too much contrast in the space.
A|L: So then light is really helping to shape the architectural form of these projects?
FI: Yes, but I think it also has to do with the fact that art can only live by the virtue of light. I think every museum understands that very well--that is why it is very high on the agenda of museum directors and curators. At this stage, I believe we (SANAA) have enough experience that we can anticipate how light will enter a project, we know what the influence of light can be on the Architecture, and we work with it as an organizational principle.
A|L: Are there other similarities and/or differences you have encountered in working on museum projects around the world?
FI: Going back to this issue of culture, there is a European understanding of light for museum settings that is different from the U.S.; museums in the U.S. focus a lot on education, and shows are always very didactic. That means often the space is very dark, and light functions like a guide, where one light leads you to the next. European museums are often organized around a very even, neutral, continuous light-level, not a set route. It's much more about browsing and finding your own way, trying to choose your own path through the museum. What we tried to do in Toledo, for instance, was to organize the space so that there is a choice of how to move, but the way the visitor is using the space is very much like a series of chapters. There is a relationship between the organization of the museum and an exhibition--light definitely plays a role in that.