The architecture and spatial design of the Lab by the Japanese architectural practice SANAA was suggested by Thomas Demand’s series Model Studies, which he shot at various times in SANAA’s office in Tokyo. The beginning of the series dates back to 2011, when Demand discovered in the archive of American architect John Lautner, which is kept at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, 12 models of buildings that Lautner’s firm had designed in the 1960s. They were working models made from ephemeral, random materials that were at hand and not intended to be shown to the client or for public display. The models had pencil marks on them and occasional explanatory notes. Their visible imperfection and temporary nature—a record of enquiry and mistakes—were of the utmost interest to Demand. Fragments picked out by the eye of the camera acquire sculptural properties, falling apart into abstract elements and re-assembling again, pulled together by a single recognizable detail (a door, a passage, columns).

In 2013, Demand made his first visit to the office of the founders of SANAA, Pritzker Prize winners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Every square meter of the modest-sized office space was occupied by paper and cardboard models, often stacked on top of each other. These stacks frequently consisted of different models of the same building that together created a record of the endless adjustment of details and ideas and allowed one to trace the evolution of the project, like a geological cross-section. Paper is important to the practice of both SANAA and Demand, and in neither case does it demonstrate the properties of a fragile and easily discarded material. Paper brings with it the possibility of quick changes, experimentation, and the specific dynamic of the tiniest details, a crucial element of the Japanese architects’ practice.

The environment presented in the Lab brings together actual models—or spatial exercises—by SANAA and prints of Demand’s photographs from Model Studies, produced specially for the exhibition. In this particular case, while Demand’s photographs are not a background, they are physically weaker variations of themselves that cede the spotlight to the actual architectural models, the three-dimensional shapes that were the object of the photographer’s attention. The model studies—exercises in finding the right form, detail, and structure—are displayed on three table surfaces.

On the first table there are models of four buildings by SANAA, KSA, and OORN. The models are of the same scale and explore the potential of bent geometry in the search for the optimal shape. The second table features a 1:1 scale model of a ceiling detail. Full-size models are an important tool when working on detail, and this fragment of a large element shows how different details and materials can work together. Ten large spaces presented as 1:100 scale models cover the third table in an almost ornamental structure. They very clearly show how the structure of a building is formed, from the almost abstract shapes that anticipate it to extremely detailed models.

SANAA’s models always deal with the variable, dynamic relationships between the elements and the process of their discovery and adjustment. As Kazuyo Sejima explains (when commenting on the project for Sakuji Apartments in the outskirts of Tokyo), “…a piece of architecture has to be composed of several parts; each part has to have a structure that is free from overall structure; such parts have to be somehow gathered to make one piece of architecture. [. . .] an accumulation of these small shifting relationships creates a building that is versatile and flexible as a whole.”

In SANAA’s architectural practice (as in Demand’s work) a model, or paper representation, is fluid and changeable, and exists in various regimes (of visibility, presence, priority), with different functions and resolves various tasks.