Imagine a tourist combing the Yemeni capital: through the sun smacked by-ways the police escort of which they are barely aware moves unseen and so too the female population; a city of girls lies distant.
Where in Tokyo the flash of a cell phone accessorizes the street, it is the ornamental knife and the Kalashnikov here. SANA’A city projects the discipline of 2,500 years of urbanization, an epicenter of the Islamic story, stuffed with the gathering places of ideological and practical men, mosques and hammams rammed of earth and concrete block.
If the smooth, buried interiors of this world heritage site were to truly admit a tourist, they might feel compelled to ask after the girls who serve the coffee, Sana’a’s other half, and the many things a tourist does not see. With no nuclear family to dilute in the flow of globalization, free of addictions to planned obsolescence, happy to delegate the public display of women to variety shows on Saudi TV, the Yemeni answer would have struck at the heart of the Japanese pavilion called City of Girls created for the 2000 Venice Biennale.
Painstakingly dressed in white by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, it was a space of mourning for young Japanese girls and teenagers, adrift from tradition, “whose habits and life-styles are shaping the new characteristics of the city of tomorrow.” Many appeared graciously despondent in photos by Hellen van Meene, which the designers arrayed like hovering flowers, each image laid flat and tablet-like, pegged to the ground by a single white stem. This installation touched critic Herbert Muschamp, in particular, who recognized Sejima and Nishizawa’s international debut although it had none of the color of their wild, unbound, trend-setting subject matter. In white, the designers bandaged the pavilion’s weeping pines, spilled a white sea of pebbles to dampen foot-falls both inside and out, and arranged a ceremonial-like mound of plastic daisies to mark their entrance. Sejima and Nishizawa are collectively known as SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa Associated Architects), an inter-generational union begun in 1995, which leaves your mouth ajar and fluttering, like Nabokov, speaking the name Lolita. In Sejima, her sole employer and mentor Toyo Ito, an internationally known architect in his own right, has diagnosed a piercing ability to divine people’s lives – “With ease and extravagance she follows her own style, determining the reality of modern urban lifestyles, and translating this into her plans.”
It was as a student and intern for Ito that the younger Nishizawa met the other half of SANAA. Sejima, known to wear Kawakubo, had by then already set out obstinately, comme un garçon, into a field of men. She hired Nishizawa immediately after his graduation, sparking a trend for fresh eager staff that continues today at SANAA. Only one year later, in 1991, they had completed what seems to be their seminal project, the women’s dormitory for the Saishukan Co. in Kumamoto, Japan, a radically communal and yet private urban cloister for eighty women participating in the company’s six-month training program. Ito applauded the design’s grasp of the lodgers’ codified, integrationist existence as an abstract map of our own, as he put it, “a diagram of the society of the future.”
Yet, the women’s dormitory was not exactly the white paint and glass wall evanescence that has become SANAA’s museological style, signaled to the art world at large by their millennial presentation in Venice. City of Girls did coincide with brand name appointments and commissions including Prada and Dior, but SANAA’s magnetism had been gaining momentum since the women’s dormitory, whose striking spatial organization would continue to be reworked and transformed by the designers.
Prophetically, in 1995, Terrence Riley, then architectural curator at MoMA, included the women’s dormitory in a group exhibition with a challenging premise – the avant-garde was making a return to beauty and privacy by softening and slowing our impressions of space. It is perhaps not entirely a mystery why Prada would have chosen SANAA to design their cosmetic retail environment. Harrowingly, by softening their space SANAA dampens the passage of time and the forces of change. Their world delays age, a kind of Lolita paradigm, which implies that in the end our real bodies and their physical needs wash away. Ito again deciphers his apprentices best when he says that inside the space of SANAA, “we cannot help but feel that our bodies are like those of androids in a space where neither body heat, perspiration nor smell exist.”
With a new project commencing in the Middle East, what would SANAA see in Sana’a? For our tourist, half of the immemorial city may well have no body heat, perspiration or smell either. This half, let us suppose, is carefully grid away behind a mechanism of beauty, society, urbanization, lifestyle and architecture.