Kazuyo Sejima: from light engineer to architectural heavy hitter

Wallpaper* gets up-close with the far-sighted star of Japanese architecture, Kazuyo Sejima
Wallpaper* gets up-close with the far-sighted star of Japanese architecture, Kazuyo Sejima
(Image credit: Brigitte Lacombe)

By the early 1990s, Kazuyo Sejima already had experience at Toyo Ito’s office, her own studio and a Young Architect of the Year award from the Japan Institute of Architects under her belt. But it was after setting up SANAA (with Ryue Nishizawa) in 1995 that her career really took off, upscaling to major cultural commissions which transformed her into an international go-to choice for mesmerisingly barely-there, ethereal architecture.

Her signature style of strong shapes and clean lines that at the same time appear flowing and delicate has helped define 21st-century Japanese architecture. It is all about the experience for Sejima, although priorities have shifted somewhat since her early days in practice. ‘Our designs are not driven by what you can do with architecture itself, but by an interest in the way people experience space as a relationship between programme, city and surrounding landscape,’ she says. ‘In the past, I would try to understand the overall character of a building’s environment and use this abstract idea to develop a design. Today, I try to create spaces that are more precisely adapted to the variable character of a neighbourhood.’

Under Kazuyo Sejima & Associates (her own firm) and SANAA, she has produced gems such the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, the Rolex Learning Center, the Louvre-Lens and Grace Farms. The SANAA-designed New Museum in New York (2007) and the Zollverein School in Germany (2006) added to her international portfolio, and commissions and honours poured in; from SANAA’s Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2009 and her appointment to direct the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale to her Pritzker Prize win (with Nishizawa) in the same year, and her participation in the Rolex Mentor scheme in 2012.

The latter also flagged up her interest in nurturing young talent; Sejima has been involved in teaching since the early 2000s. ‘Young people come up with new ideas constantly – and this can, of course, be exciting,’ she says. ‘But I have recently realised there are things we can imagine only as we grow older, making these relationships very effective during a design process.’

Now approaching 60, Sejima shows no sign of slowing down. Current projects include La Samaritaine department store in Paris; the Hitachi City Hall in her home prefecture of Ibaraki, now under construction; and the Inujima Art House Project, aimed at encouraging people to settle on the small island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Kazuyo Sejima is one of our 20 Game-Changers. Read about the other 19 here

As originally featured in the October 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*211)


Photography: Brigitte Lacombe

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).