SANAA: Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa Electa, 2006. 267pp.£39.95 Kengo Kuma Electa, 2006. 248pp.£39.95
Here are two Japanese practices whose principals are in their 50s, and who have already had books written about them, which are appearing in print again with lavish documentation of the last 10 years' work; lavish, but not necessarily informative.
In both books there are too many photos of the same feature, often reproduced too small to convey much. In both, there are plans which cannot be read, presumably included for graphic effect. Page 111 of SANAA is devoted to two sections and three elevations of a museum annexe in Ohio, all five nearly identical and, like the practice's typical building, long, low and featureless.
SANAA favours materials and surfaces that impinge minimally on the senses - glass and its substitutes above all;
water sometimes, which seems to lap against the building with nothing much to stop it from pouring in. The space of its café is congested with white metal poles - an 'artificial forest under a roof' - while other low undifferentiated facades are punctuated by skinny posts, tending to immateriality.
Immateriality appears towards the end in the form of six projects, four in Europe, one in the USA, one in Japan, all unbuilt and presented entirely in colourless models and diagrammatic drawings.
Kengo Kuma has written a good deal about wanting to dissolve architecture, which he initially undertook by trying to embody chaos, but more recently by making architectural effects disappear into their background, presumably an almost antithetical procedure. So he suspends a glass pod, reached by a glass passage, over an extensive sea view. Lighting for both spaces is contained in the glass oor and makes extremely dramatic effects at night when no one is there. This seems more like SANAA's attitude to materials, to treat them as ideal substances which retain the featurelessness and smoothness they have at the start.
Otherwise, Kuma is a devotee of wood, bamboo, stone and mud bricks, who creates some beautiful effects that are occasionally more like gardening than architecture.
This seems the case in the Great (Bamboo) Wall, a vacation house near Beijing. The writer doesn't say much about the client for this work, part of a compound of 11 dwellings by 11 Asian architects. This house is treated by Kuma as if it sat in the middle of nowhere and connected with nothing; all that matters are the exquisite light effects he can coax from thin shafts of bamboo.
Both practices seem in their different ways to fetishise architecture and avoid reality; SANAA through a variant of Modernist colourless transparency, Kuma by paying so much attention to substances that he forgets use. The two come nearest to each other in designs for apartment blocks, the only really subdivided spaces either of them has to deal with, where both of them employ cell-like monotony that brings to mind Bentham's Panopticon.