The 2010 Pritzker award-winning couple, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa lead the Japanese-based architecture firm SANAA, (Sejima and Nishikawa Architects and Associates). Simple geometry and minimalist language that seeks to explore the permeability of public space is a concept they’ve been exploiting through different approaches in their projects. One of SANAA’s most significant achievements is the 21st Century Museum Of Contemporary Art at Kanazawa. It aimed to revitalize its community and awaken Kanazawa’s dynamism creating a compelling cultural attraction for the region.

Swimming pool | Museum of Contemporary Art

One of the most remarkable features is Leandro Erlich’s piece, a swimming pool in the heart of the Museum. Visitors may see through the water between the basement and ground floors. This work is accomplished by separating two acrylic plates by 30cm and filling them with water. To enhance the feature, another 10cm layer of water is poured over the upper acrylic, giving it a more realistic effect.

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Swimming Pool_©Petr Šmídek, 2012

Vertical Garden

Another element designed by Patrick Blanc is the Vertical Garden, which serves as a boundary in one of the courtyards and is traversed perpendicularly by a glazed circulation.

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Vertical Garden_©Petr Šmídek, 2012

Concept | Museum of Contemporary Art

The aim of the museum was focused on chance, enjoyment and accessibility. A challenge encountered in this project by SANAA was to create a balance between the public and private areas by blurring the lines between them. The transparency of the building reflects the intention to avoid the museum being viewed as a large introverted mass.

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Blurring the lines between interior and exterior_©Petr Šmídek, 2012

Spatial Organization

The museum’s circular layout extends 112.50 metres in diameter and has a total area of 27920 square metres. It is composed of boxes of varied sizes put in a circular glass liner encircled by a circular cover, with height and opacity levels ranging from 4 to 12 metres. The resulting form tries to minimise the general volume of the building, mitigate the scale of the project and provide access from multiple points thus providing an efficient connect with the exterior environment.

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Interior View_©Petr Šmídek, 2012

Location | Museum of Contemporary Art

Kanazawa’s Museum of Contemporary Art of the 21st Century is in the city centre. The structure is in an irregularly shaped park near the Kenrokuen garden, one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan.

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Location in the city centre_©Petr Šmídek, 2012


Focusing on the concept, SANAA proposed an efficient mixed-use design centred around four courtyards. This is a deceptively basic but very provocative design that defies the typical concept of a museum flow by giving visitors complete flexibility over their location, appropriation of space, defining their own path, and engagement with the building, art, and surroundings. Meeting rooms, reading room, library, workshops for children, café, service areas, and exhibition areas are all part of the museum’s program.

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The external connect_©Petr Šmídek, 2012


The site, surrounded by three streets, is accessible from multiple directions, leading to the plane of circularity allowing visitors to enter the Museum through any entrance, facilitating access and the feeling of closeness between the building and the city. There is a free flow of circulation from the outer perimeter, where public access components are placed, to the building’s heart, where the museum is housed. The use of automated translucent acrylic doors maintains a visible relationship with the exterior at all times. The museum’s 15 exhibition galleries do not communicate directly with one another. SANAA hoped to enable people to roam among the galleries without following a definite path by incorporating an interim space, corridor, terrace, or garden. The exhibition spaces, cafeteria, and art library are all horizontally arranged, giving the impression that visitors are in an urban setting. The Museum’s natural flow allows visitors to effortlessly view each area.

Access from multiple directions_©Petr Šmídek, 2012
Access from multiple directions_©Petr Šmídek, 2012

Lighting | Museum of Contemporary Art

Natural light also helps to the cohesiveness of areas and the overall design. The absolute transparency of the outlying bays allows the landscape and light to permeate to the interior of the structure, while the exhibition galleries’ skylights provide communication with the outdoors through the perception of natural fluctuations.

Ample daylighting_©Petr Šmídek, 2012
Ample daylighting_©Petr Šmídek, 2012
Galleries’ skylights_©Petr Šmídek, 2012
Galleries’ skylights_©Petr Šmídek, 2012

Blue Planet Sky

A rectangular hole in the ceiling of one of the exhibition halls allows the spectator to witness the constantly changing splendour of the sky and environment. This hole that collects light and acts on the visitor’s sensory experiences is a piece by artist James Turrell called Blue Planet Sky, which tries to awaken us to senses we are not ordinarily aware of.

Blue Planet Sky_©Petr Šmídek, 2012
Blue Planet Sky_©Petr Šmídek, 2012


The use of glass walls by SANAA generates transparency and light both inside and out. It also heightens the sense of encounter and awareness of one’s surroundings. Without having to enter the building, the curved glass façade allows visitors to appreciate the display, heightened by the light and reflections that change throughout the day.

Structure and Materials | Museum of Contemporary Art

The structural evidence is minimized in this idea, resulting in flawless connectivity from the inside to the outside supported by two parallel planes: the ceiling and the floor. There are only a few thin steel columns between these two planes, making it impossible to believe they support any weight.

Its construction, has two levels above ground and two underground, and is built of steel beams and 12.5cm tubular columns that support a reinforced concrete roof encircled by a glass facade. Its inner sections, are supported by steel beam cutting walls. The ground level is supported by a steel framework in the basement.

Night View_©Petr Šmídek, 2012

At night, the museum by SANAA accentuates its position as an urban landmark and the Kanazawa people’s symbolic visual identity.


  1. “Archiweb – 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa.”,
  2. “金沢21世紀美術館.” 金沢21世紀美術館, 2019,
  3. Viva, Arquitectura. “Kanazawa Museum of Contemporary Art, Ishikawa – SANAA.” Arquitectura Viva,

Krithika Sivakumar, an architect and psychology enthusiast, delves deep into the workings of the mind and spaces, as well as the emotional influence they have on us. Driven by passion, she zealously wields her pen to voice her views to the world.