Women in Architecture: Kazuyo Sejima

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re putting a spotlight on one of the world’s most cherished architects, Kazuyo Sejima. Throughout her breathtaking portfolio of work, Sejima has exhibited her enigmatic and refined point of view and became the second woman ever to receive the acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize. Today, we’re diving into Sejima’s notable life, work and achievements.

The Life and Career of Kazuyo Sejima

Sejima was born in Mito, Ibaraki, Japan in 1956. After discovering her passion for architecture and design at a young age, she began her studies at the Japan Women’s University, where she completed both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in architecture. Following her graduation in 1981, Sejima began apprenticing with Toyo Ito – a renowned Pritzker Award-winning architect also from Japan. 

After nearly seven years working with Ito, Sejima felt empowered to launch her architecture firm, Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, in 1987. Directly after opening, Sejima convinced her long-time confidant, whom she worked with under Ito, Ryue Nishizawa, to work with her at her firm. Nishizawa gladly joined Sejima, and nine years later, the pair founded a firm of their own, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANNA). And, thanks to Sejima and Nishizawa’s visionary designs, SANNA quickly became a nationally renowned firm after only a few years. 

Sejima’s designs are frequently recognized for their vibrant materials and colors, including various types of marble, glass and metals. She also often takes advantage of organic forms and aesthetics in her work, thoughtfully exploring each design as an instrument for human experience. Sejima’s appreciation for sheer glass in many other builds allows for an abundance of natural light, helping to create a more fluid transition between interior and exterior environments. 

Sumida Hokusai Museum
Sumida Hokusai Museum. Credit: Kakidai 2018, Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Throughout her career, Sejima has expressed the same concern for each of her projects: the functionality of the space’s social uses and their potential for adaptation. This philosophy explains why she doesn’t consider any of her builds finished until each of its inhabitants places pieces of their lives into the space through their various actions and interests. 

Notable Works and Achievements

Sejima translated her vision and architectural philosophy into her first project, Platform House I, in 1987. Sejima built the Platform House in a Japanese suburb and took inspiration from western designs, intermixing traditional Japanese values with European elements of architecture. With her first project, Seijam set out to create a living environment built with a platonic ideal of architecture – where it would function as provisional to the residents based on their actions and lifestyle. 

Throughout the house, Sejima experimented with large spaces, positioning the building’s central living area a half level below the kitchen and a half level above the sleeping floor below. Sejima also adopted her signature use of bright materials throughout the home, utilizing floor-to-ceiling windows in the home to illuminate its interior spaces and a gleaming, corrugated metal roof to signature the movement and human interaction that occurs below it. Following Platform House I,  Sejima designed companion projects: Platform House II and III.

New Museum of Contemporary Art, NYC
New Museum of Contemporary Art, NYC. Credit: CTG/SF, Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

Sejima extended her vision across the world, and in 2007 she, along with Nishizawa, designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Their design was chosen due to its adaptable atmospheres – mirroring the ever-changing nature of contemporary art. From the exterior, the building’s bold design consists of four white cubes that sit on top of one another, further symbolizing the dynamic energy of contemporary culture. After its completion, the building received praise, and Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the architectural New Seven Wonders of the World

Most recently, Sejima constructed a vibrant tribute to renowned Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika through the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Sejima thoughtfully designed the building to blend in with its surrounding urban environment, making it more accessible to its visitors. Sticking to her trademark design elements, Sejima used reflective aluminum panels to cover the façade. The building’s exterior also features various slits on all sides, eliminating the notion of a “front” and “back”, and providing outdoor walkways connecting each first-floor area.

The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, 2016

Alongside her extraordinary work, Sejima has also received numerous architecture and art awards as well as achievements:

  • Young Architect of the Year, Japan Institute of Architects, 1992
  • Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan, 1998, 2006
  • International Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 2007
  • Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2010

Today, Sejima continues to fearlessly voice her unique architectural perspective, gifting the world with her ambitious designs. She currently teaches as a Visiting Professor at Tama Art University and Japan Women’s University. And, succeeding Zaha Hadid in 2015, she leads an architectural design studio at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Women in Architecture: Zaha Hadid

Breaking boundaries as the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, Zaha Hadid is recognized as one of the most exceptional designers in history, forging a legacy of innovation and individuality. Despite Hadid’s unexpected death in 2016, her legacy continues through the projects she designed.

Born October, 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq, Hadid studied mathematics as an undergraduate and went on to enroll at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Hadid was advised under Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, who would later describe Hadid as one of the most exceptional students he ever taught.After graduating, Hadid moved to Rotterdam where she worked for Koolhaas at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). In 1980, after becoming a naturalized citizen of the United Kingdom, Hadid opened her firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, which has developed high-profile and illustrious projects around the world. Hadid and her firm introduced audiences to a new way of conceptualizing modern architecture through extremely detailed sketches rather than postmodern designs.

After graduating, Hadid moved to Rotterdam where she worked for Koolhaas at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). In 1980, after becoming a naturalized citizen of the United Kingdom, Hadid opened her firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, which has developed high-profile and illustrious projects around the world. Hadid and her firm introduced audiences to a new way of conceptualizing modern architecture through extremely detailed sketches rather than postmodern designs.

The front of the Vitra Fire Station shows the harsh lines of the concrete structure lined with greenery in its front.
Vitra Fire Station, Zaha Hadid, Weil am Rhein, Germany 1993

Vitra Fire Station

The very first building complex designed by Hadid was the Vitra Fire Station, eventually launching her career. One of Hadid’s clients, Rolf Fehlbaum, the president-director of the furniture design firm, Vitra, invited her to design a fire station for his design museum. Building from 1991-1993, Hadid used raw concrete and glass that defined the sculptural building. The station, famous for the dramatic effect of its sharp diagonals converging at its center, only remained functional for a short period and now serves as an exhibit space.

The front of the MAXXI Museum.
MAXXI Museum, Zaha Hadid, Rome, 2010

National Museum of Arts of the 21st Century (MAXXI)

One of Hadid’s more recent designs, the MAXXI was built between 1998 and 2010. The structure appears to be moving and flowing through space in spots, animated by Hadid’s ambition to create movement through the design. Hadid achieved this movement through curving, white walls and the placement of the building extending precariously out over five, thin pylons. Hadid explained that she wanted the design to invoke “confluence, interference, and turbulence.”

A birds eye view of the London Aquatic Center
London Aquatic Center, Zaha Hadid, 2011

London Aquatic Center

Tasked to design the aquatic center for the 2012 Summer Olympics, Hadid again turned to fluidity, this time the convergence of geometry and liquidity found in water. Hadid’s iconic design covers three stadium pools with a complex roof the shape of a parabolic arch dipping into the center that anyone would recognize. The structure was praised by critics for its success in mimicking the “floating” and “undulation” of water, as stated by Rowan Moore.

In addition to receiving the Pritzker Prize, Hadid was recognized with numerous other prestigious awards, including the Royal Institute of British Architecture’s Royal Gold Metal Award, an honor approved by Her Majesty The Queen, and the Jane Dew Prize; she was also appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was honored with a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum.

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