The grand opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent home isn’t expected for a full year, but the downtown showplace’s sandstone facade, green aluminum panels and pyramid-shaped skylights are already drawing plenty of attention.

So is its architect, Arata Isozaki, whose prior commissions had been exclusively in his native Japan. While the 54-year-old Tokyo-based architect had long been prominent at home, he’s only recently begun accumulating a roster of major U.S. and European assignments. Among them: New York’s hot, high-tech Palladium Club disco, which opened last May, and the mammoth Sports Hall in Barcelona, now under construction.

It seemed only a matter of time. The cosmopolitan, youthful-looking architect has been traversing the globe for years, and drew on memories of New Delhi in choosing MOCA’s sandstone, Egypt for its pyramids. Isozaki may not have worked in the United States prior to the MOCA commission in 1981, but as MOCA’s former chairman Eli Broad points out, the architect has been busily lecturing and doing visiting professor stints everywhere from Harvard to the University of Hawaii.

Isosaki today travels a third of his time. His trips are often to Los Angeles, which he finds reminiscent of Kyushu, the southern island of Japan where he was raised and where most of his commissions were until the mid-'70s. “There is very strong sunshine there in summer, so my images relate to that bright sunshine and strong shadows,” he explained in fluent English.

Architecture writer Martin Filler recently called Isozaki and his wife, sculptor Aiko Miyawaki, “true cultural citizens of the world.” Raised in a home where his businessman father wrote haiku poetry, he later was attracted toward the avant-garde and today readily calls his tastes “radical” in everything from music to literature.


The first music he recalls appreciating was American jazz in the ‘50s and jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. With the ‘60s came an interest in John Cage, followed by the Beatles, rock, the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, “and now everything.” A current favorite is the young Japanese “techno-pop” composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, formerly leader of the group Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Isozaki’s odyssey was similar in theater, starting with Anton Chekhov and Arthur Miller, then hooking into Japan’s underground theater movement in the mid-'60s. He became friendly with director Tadashi Suzuki, becoming more and more involved with the Suzuki Co. of Theater (SCOT) in the remote village of Toga.

In the mid-'70s, Isozaki renovated an old farmhouse as an experimental stage for Suzuki, later adding an amphitheater. He is now designing a 600-seat concert hall in Tokyo and recently received a commission from Japan’s National Theater to create sets for a new opera about contemporary Tokyo by composer Toshio Hosokawa.

On all of these assignments, Isozaki draws from a wide-ranging store of references. MOCA’s pyramid-shaped skylights do indeed reflect Egyptian pyramids, for instance, but they are also simple geometric forms. Influenced first by his teacher, the prominent Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, by Le Corbusier and, later, by Otto Wagner, the architect builds on rather than discards his traditional training.

Yet the man who designed his home town’s Fujimi Country Clubhouse in the shape of a question mark also dips freely into his imagination. The Palladium Club is essentially a nightclub built inside the shell of the 60-year-old former Academy of Music, and one of Isozaki’s sources for that concept came from the fantasy-style architectural etchings of the 18th-Century Italian artist Piranesi.

He didn’t stop with Piranesi, however. The Palladium not only incorporates what Isozaki calls the “multivision” multiple television consoles of Tokyo department stores but enough high-tech video, audio and lighting equipment to dazzle R2D2.

Isozaki is admittedly fascinated by advanced technology, particularly now that it’s “so much advanced, upgraded, easier to use, lighter weight and simplified,” yet at the same time tries to keep his own life simple. He was hospitalized for exhaustion in both the 1960s and ‘70s--he didn’t have time in the ‘80s because of the MOCA project, he quips--and while he doesn’t seem able to temper his life style, he has modulated his diet.

Around 15 years ago, he switched to macro-biotic food and says that when he is home he usually eats mainly brown rice, no meat and little fish. When traveling he “makes exceptions” for natural foods, “authentic” ethnic restaurants and places like Michael’s in Santa Monica.

He also brings powdered food from Japan with him. In his suitcase at the Art Deco Shangri-La hotel in Santa Monica earlier this month, for instance, were both wheat powder and a powder made from wild rice leaves.

His U.S. reputation is growing. There were one-man shows of his silk-screen prints in both New York and San Francisco in 1983, and earlier this year, New York’s Japan House Gallery exhibited work by Isozaki and architect Fumihiko Maki.

Tables, chairs and lamp shades are also on the artist’s aesthetic agenda. A new model of his 1965 chair using curves “related to” Marilyn Monroe is currently in the marketplace.

That’s just the start. Isozaki has created rings, necklaces and watches that will be shown in the United States next year. (He wears no jewelry other than a slim silver wedding band.) And coming soon are bathroom fixtures he is designing for a major U.S. manufacturer.

Yet Isozaki still confesses restlessness. The Palladium assignment may have brought him recognition, he says, but he’s already seeking his “next challenging commission. The Palladium is done, MOCA is almost done and Barcelona is under construction. I’m waiting. No, not waiting. Searching and looking.”