Lesson: New Museum: Exploring the Building

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: English, Math, Studio art, and Design
  • Exploring the New Museum BuildingExploring the New Museum Building


SANAA’s work is luminous and deceptively simple, sophisticated in its treatment of complex building details and fluid, nonhierarchical space. Their inventive use of exterior façades as permeable membranes establishes subtle but provocative relationships between interior and exterior, individual and community, and the realms of public and private experience. Their intricate use of variation, unevenness, and off-centeredness emphasizes the relationship of architectural elements not as discrete entities along a single axis, but rather how they relate to one another.


  • Students will examine and discuss elements of design, considering relationships between interior and exterior space, individual and community, and public and private realms of experience.
  • Students will explore the built environment and the integration of natural elements in interior spaces
  • Students will learn about architecture projects by an international architectural firm


Environment – the aggregate of surrounding things, conditions, or influences, milieu.
Public Space – a place where anyone has a right to be without being excluded because of economic or social conditions.
Commission – a task or matter committed to one’s charge; official assignment: The architect received a commission to design an office building.
Installation – something installed, as machinery or apparatus placed in position or connected for use.
Hierarchy – any system of persons or things ranked one above another.
Luminous – radiating or reflecting light; shining; bright.
Interior – being within; inside of anything; internal; inner; further toward a center: the interior rooms of a house. Architecture. the inside part of a building, considered as a whole from the point of view of artistic design or general effect, convenience, etc.
Exterior – outer; being on the outer side: the exterior surface; exterior decorations.
Uniformity – the state or quality of being uniform; overall sameness, homogeneity: uniformity or regularity of style.
Organic – Architecture. noting or pertaining to any work of architecture regarded as analogous to plant or animal forms in having a structure and a plan that fulfill perfectly the functional requirements for the building and that form in themselves an intellectually lucid, integrated whole.
Fine Arts. of or pertaining to the shapes or forms in a work of art that are of irregular contour and seem to resemble or suggest forms found in nature.
Naturalistic – imitating nature or the usual natural surroundings.
Static – pertaining to or characterized by a fixed or stationary condition
Stationary – having a fixed position; not movable.
Vernacular Architecture – concerned with domestic or functional space rather than monumental buildings.


Sketch pads
Google maps
New Museum building images in the Digital Archives (plans, sections, elevations, exhibit models, furniture, study models, house wares)
SANAA images in the Digital Archives
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE, introduction to the catalogue Shift SANAA and the New Museum.

Lesson Strategy

Sejima studied architecture at the Japan Women’s University before going to work for the celebrated architect Toyo Ito. She launched her own practice in 1987 and was named Young Architect of the Year in Japan in 1992. Nishizawa studied architecture at Yokohama National University and, in addition to his work with Sejima, has maintained an independent practice since 1997. The architects have worked collaboratively in the partnership of SANAA since 1995, and together draw upon their individual sensibilities to continuously test the possibilities of design.

The show (in the gallery, the café, and lobby) marks SANAA’s first comprehensive exhibition in New York and presents commissions and projects made over a ten-year period, characterized by an alchemy of understatement, lightness, warmth, and respect for human scale.

We will begin our discussion here on the main floor having an informal conversation with 5 projects including the museum. Let’s begin with the New Museum.

I. New Museum (2003-2007)
II. Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art (2001-06)
III. Zollverein School of Management and Design (2003-06)
IV. Alessi Tea and Coffee Towers (2000-), SANAA designed tables and Rabbit Chairs (2000 and 2005)
V. House in Plum Grove (2001-2003)

Let us begin by discussing the New Museum’s environment.

New Museum

  • What did you notice as you approached the building?
  • Which architectural aspects did you notice?
  • How has SANAA managed to avoid a strictly vertical building, and what strategies did they use?
  • Elements such as variation and unevenness are important to the architects— where can you see evidence of this in the building?
  • Individual, community, public, and private are also concerns of SANAA. How do these concerns manifest themselves in the design of the museum?
  • What type of materials did they use for the exterior of the building?
  • What affect does the aluminum mesh have on the building and the surrounding buildings?
  • What do you notice about the relation between the street and the lobby? Or between the surrounding buildings and the façade?
  • How has SANAA made use of public space in the building?
  • Is there a hierarchy in the use of space?
  • How does SANAA create an open and airy environment?
  • How does the openness invite a democracy of space?
  • Does the openness invite a sense of belonging?
  • Is there a flow of energy and movement from one area to another? How?
  • How does the building architecture invite nature in?
  • What is the relationship between interior and exterior?
  • It is said that SANAA uses materials of the everyday. Where do you see examples of this?
  • How do you think the building will impact the future of architecture in the downtown area?

Designed by architects Sejima & Nishizawa of SANAA. SANAA conceived of the Museum as a sculptural stack of rectilinear boxes shifted off-axis producing a variety of open, fluid, and light-filled spaces, each with a different character.
At the heart of the New Museum’s seven-story building are three floors of column-free galleries. Each is distinguished by a different ceiling height and unique location of skylight created by the setbacks where the stories shift. The ground floor named after our founder, the Marcia Tucker Hall, includes a glass-walled gallery, a café, and the renowned New Museum Store.
The use of industrial materials is in keeping with the commercial character of the Bowery. There is a deliberate openness to the building, with its glass storefront, and transparency making the building materials visible, from the steel to the ductwork, to the freight coming in and out of the loading bay.

The lobby is seen as a public space where people can “erratically” wander and where many activities take place at the same time. SANAA paid close attention to the mission of the institution (experimentation, “intimacy” with visitors) and needs of the curators. In spite of the use of metallic looking elements used in the building SANAA has managed to maintain a transparent, weightless feel to the architecture.

It is 174 feet high, 71 feet wide, 112 feet deep.
A few more facts about this building: total floor area 58700 sq feet; largest gallery space 5000 sq feet (2nd floor).

Let’s move into the glass gallery to look at the models of the New Museum.
The SANAA workshops are a very process orientated environment. Instead of working on computers with programs they work by hand. The Styrofoam studies that you see here are just 20 out of 30,000 studies made during the competition to win the bid for the building. These 20 had to be remade for the exhibition because the originals were discarded.

Let’s take a closer look at the three larger models of the building.


  • What are the differences and similarities that you notice?
  • What difference do you notice from the first study, second study, and finally the third study?
  • What are some of the other changes and decisions that SANAA made between the different studies. You can actually see the process happen.
  • What do you notice about the materials?

After the tour please take the opportunity to visit the upper floor of the museum where you will find vista views of the city. The space is our event planning space and is open to the public on weekends, when sitting areas are installed for the public along with a refreshment area. Also of importance is to note the skylights in the upper galleries, especially in the glass galleries and the staircase leading from the 4th floor galleries to the 3rd floor.

Let’s look at SANAA’s other U.S. museum projects.

Toledo Glass Pavilion

  • Looking at the shape of this building, can you discern which materials are used here?
  • What do you notice about the shape of the building that is radically different from other buildings?
  • When you consider the properties of glass, what shapes do you think of? Do you see it as a malleable and fluid medium?
  • What effect does the use of glass have on the usage of the space?
  • How does SANAA create a space that has duel purposes such as production and exhibition? How is the space separate yet accessible to the museum-goer?
  • Is there an element of community which they incorporate into the space? How?
  • What about the relation between interior and exterior?
  • What is the connection between the different activities within the institution: display, production, work, and social interactions?
  • How did the final shape of the pavilion transform from the original studies?
  • Is there an inter-connectedness to this project and the New Museum project? What are some of the shared ideas?


This glass pavilion is part of the Toledo Museum of Art and houses their glass art collection, as well as student studio space and seminar rooms. You can see objects from antiquity juxtaposed with students working on glass.
Between the different activities, there’s a separation of 2.8 feet (this “double” wall is for climate control). The heat generated in glass production process is reused for heating in the building.
This is an entirely round building; every interior and exterior wall is made out of glass (custom made in China).

Essen Zollverein School

  • Look at this building. Do you see any connections with the Toledo Museum or the New Museum?
  • What are some of the stylistic differences?
  • What are the differences in materials?
  • What about the architectural details of the buildings—how do those details differ?
  • When you think of a structure made of concrete what image does it conjure up? How do you think your body responds to this type of material?
  • Do you think the site may have been a factor in determining the building materials? Why?
  • Do you think that this building has an organic or naturalistic element to its design? Why or why not?
  • Look at the windows—how do you think the relation between inside and outside is experienced in this building?

There is very little stylistic or even material resemblance: SANAA is not as interested in developing a signature style. This building’s skin is made of concrete; the “windows” are incisions in this skin. The whole form is a “simple” cube. There is no “regular” pattern of the windows, people inside get large unexpected vistas of the environment.

SANAA decided to go for a large building after studying the environment. This school is in an industrial area, surrounded by large decaying factories and a coal mine. SANAA created something “harmonious” in this context.
In their work, as in the Toledo museum, they paid close attention to the needs of the students and teachers, trying to optimize the building for the activities it was meant to house.
They use warm water from the mine to heat the concrete, thus avoiding the need to build an extra thick wall.

Let’s return to our own building and take a look at the smaller components of design for a moment.

Alessi Tea and Coffee Towers and SANAA designed tables and Rabbit chairs

  • What do you notice about the design for the café?
  • What type of movement do you notice?
  • Do the design elements repeat elements seen in nature? How?
  • What shape are the tables? How does this relate to or compliment the tea and coffee towers?
  • What do you notice about how nature has been incorporated into the café?
  • What do you think about the design choice to use a variety of different style chairs in the café?
  • Look at the different models—what comes to mind when you compare them?
  • What design choices do you think SANAA made?
  • What type of forms are used in the design? Do you see this type of shape or design in nature or man-made forms?
  • Why do you think they refer to the tea/coffee sets as towers?


Among the already existing SANAA-designed tables and Rabbit chairs in the New Museum’s café is a model of SANAA’s Flower chair, a set of Alessi Tea & Coffee Towers, and a hanahana (flowerflower) stand with fresh flowers.
There’s an organic shape to the pieces. They, especially Sejima, try to break away from the rigid box-like shape often associated with “building”.

SANAA is very process-based; they make a lot of models. You can see this in the stack of models at the entrance of the lobby.
This tea set was made for the Italian design company Alessi (they have an architect’s series); it is on sale in our museum store.

SANAA also designed other museums in Japan, most importantly the Kanazawa Museum of 21st Century (2004) –huge space (25,000 square feet), round, and focused on activities. It is accessible from 4 sides, and the visitor is free to choose his direction.

Let’s now look at a design for a residence in Tokyo.

House in a Plum Grove 1999-2000

  • What do you notice about this building?
  • Is there a relationship with interior and exterior space?
  • How does SANAA bring private and public (social) into this house?
  • What are the types of rooms in this house?
  • What appears to be important to the residents of Plum Grove?
  • How do you think family members’ privacy is sacrificed in rooms without doors? Explain.

This is a 5 bedroom house for 5 family members, with 24 rooms and no doors. The rooms are separated by such spaces as a desk room, a room for a bed, a dining room, and a library. The house flows from one room into another without sacrificing the privacy of the inhabitants.


Verbal Literacy: Evaluate student participation in the discussions.

Keywords: Architecture, design

Lesson Plan: New Museum: Exploring the Building