When the British architectural website Building Design ran an overview of the work of Japanese architect Arata Isozaki before his 86th birthday in 2017, the piece served as retrospective and primer to the more than six-decade career of a figure whose work eludes pithy, Twitter-length descriptions.
Isozaki is an architect whose work digests Western influence but applies to it a rigorous attention to detail that is very Japanese. He is a serious theorist whose structures can be humorous and wry. An architect of worldwide renown — he has more than 100 built works internationally, including his acclaimed design for the Museum of Contemporary Art on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles — his name isn’t always recognized outside architectural circles.
Isozaki was an early brutalist whose later designs pried apart boxy Modernism into an array of curved, vaulted and pyramidal shapes — architecture that was Postmodern, but without the frequent historic references for which Postmodernism is known. (“I’m post-Modern,” he once told a reporter, “not post-Modernist.”)
It is fitting that an architect intrigued by the concept of in-between space — known as ma in Japanese — is himself in between. The article in Building Design described Isozaki as “a forgotten visionary ready for rediscovery.”
That rediscovery has arrived: The Pritzker Prize jury is expected to announce Tuesday morning that the Okinawa-based architect, 87, is the Pritzker laureate for 2019.
“Isozaki’s oeuvre has been described as heterogeneous and encompasses descriptions from vernacular to high tech,” read the citation issued by the Pritzker jury, which this year included architects Richard Rogers, Kazuyo Sejima and Wang Shu, as well as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, among others. “What is patently clear is that he has not been following trends but forging his own path.”
Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize, described Isozaki as “someone who looked beyond Japan, but not in the way of globalization.
“His curiosity and his ability to connect in a very sincere way is something that the jury has highlighted and talked about. He connected East with West.”
Isozaki is the 46th Pritzker Prize laureate and the eighth winner from Japan.
His selection represents a departure from recent years, in which the Pritzker jury has highlighted architects whose work addresses social issues in addition to aesthetic concerns — figures such as India’s Balkrishna Doshi, Chile’s Alejandro Aravena and Japan’s Shigeru Ban, designers who have tackled affordable housing and natural disasters.
The award will do little to correct the Pritzker’s dire track record of recognizing women — only three women have won the award, and two of those were as part of partnerships — or architects who aren’t from Europe, the U.S. or Japan. But in many ways this year’s selection fills a gap.
The Pritzker honored the late Kenzo Tange in 1987, an architect for whom Isozaki worked and who was known for his design of Tokyo’s iconic Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the ’64 Olympics. Six years later, the prize went to Fumihiko Maki, a generational colleague of Isozaki’s who is known for his ideas about megastructures, large-scale mixed-use buildings that fulfill many urban needs in a single site, and who went on to design a 72-story tower in Manhattan’s revamped World Trade Center site in 2013.
But the jury had consistently overlooked Isozaki, an architect who has been influential — if not always consistent.
“Over the more than 50 years Arata Isozaki has been practicing, he has had an impact on world architecture through his works, writings, exhibitions, the organization of important conferences and participation on competition juries,” the jury’s citation said. “He has supported many young architects from across the globe.”
Born in Ōita, on the southern island of Kyushu, in 1931, Isozaki was 14 when U.S. bombs flattened his hometown, followed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I grew up on ground zero,” he says in a biographical statement issued by the Pritzker. “It was in complete ruins, and there was no architecture, no buildings, not even a city. Only barracks and shelters surrounded me. So, my first experience of architecture was the void of architecture, and I began to consider how people might rebuild their homes and cities.”
He went on to study architecture at the University of Tokyo and, while he was still an undergraduate, went to work at Tange’s studio, where the Olympic project was in the works.
A period of intense travel followed — around Japan, through Europe and ultimately to the U.S. — exposing the young architect to a world of design ideas that he would ultimately synthesize into his work.
“My generation [of Japanese architects] is the first which has been able to look at, for example, the Parthenon, Chartres and the works of Palladio in the same way as we look at Japanese classics,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 1992. “It’s my generation’s good fortune that we are able to learn from this situation.”
By the early ’60s, he had opened his own design office in Tokyo. There, he designed houses, libraries and medical centers — much of it, in the early days, in the brutalist style. This included the Ōita Medical Hall (completed in 1960) and the Ōita Prefectural Library (1966), both sturdy, geometric volumes rendered in rough concrete.
The former structure bears a resemblance to a robotic animal — a giant elliptical cylinder on pillars that look like legs. Isozaki said the building’s figurative qualities didn’t escape him when he was at the drafting table. “I suddenly saw the building’s resemblance to a piggy bank and burst out laughing,” he once told an interviewer. “Instead of discarding the design, I decided to go with it, precisely because of its humorous character.”
That sense of whimsy is something he has employed on other occasions. In 1974, he designed a clubhouse for an Ōita golf club in the shape of a question mark because he couldn’t understand why Japanese people played so much golf.
By the 1970s and ’80s, his work was evolving — into something that was not quite Modern or Postmodern, not quite European or Japanese. The plaza he designed for the Tsukuba Center Building in Ibaraki, for example, completed in 1983, featured Italian Renaissance proportions and a Japanese garden.
“Looking at an Isozaki building is a bit like watching an American sitcom dubbed in German,” wrote critic William Wilson of Isozaki’s work in The Times in 1991. “Suddenly all those American actors saying, ‘danke’ and ‘gesundheit’ look very Teutonic. It shows how powerful language can be. But Isozaki doesn't just give Japanese architecture a European accent. He speaks many languages at once, ironically contradicting and doubting himself while searching for something else.”
This hybrid language — at times, jumbled — is something that the architect has deployed throughout his long career, during which he has built towers, concert halls, theaters, convention centers and corporate headquarters, including a critically well-received office for the Walt Disney Company in Orlando in 1990. (Of the project, critic Paul Goldberger wrote that it “manages with stunning grace to combine the whimsical qualities for which the company likes to be known with the deeper resonances of architecture as art.”)
But the MOCA building in downtown Los Angeles remains one of the architect’s most consistently lauded works: a partly sunken 98,000-square-foot complex clad in unfinished, red Indian sandstone that is punctuated by pyramidal skylights and a half-cylinder barrel vault on pillars at the museum’s entrance.
“Not since the French architectural visionaries of the 18th century has an architect used solid geometric volumes with such clarity and purity, and never with his sense of playfulness,” wrote Joseph Giovannini of the buildings in 1986, when MOCA first opened on Grand Avenue.
Inside, Isozaki produced a graceful procession of galleries bathed in radiant daylight from the skylights above — a procession that retains its power today.
“I think he understood Los Angeles more than most architects do,” says Richard Koshalek, who worked at MOCA first as curator and deputy director, then as director throughout the ’80s and ’90s. “I think he not only understood the quality of light that exists in Southern California, I also think he had a great understanding of artists like Sam Francis and Robert Irwin and their work, which at the time was breaking new ground.”
This is not to say that Los Angeles made things easy on Isozaki.
“He was dealing with a very complex site and very complex restrictions on what could be built there,” Koshalek said.
For one, there was the terrain: The museum would rest on top of a parking lot off a steep Bunker Hill slope just off Grand Avenue, a two-level thoroughfare. “If there has ever been a worse place to try to make museum architecture in the U.S., I am not aware of it,” wrote Paul Gapp, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune at the time.
Plus, there were the politics: The developer of California Plaza, the commercial center where MOCA resides, didn’t want the museum to block the view of the surrounding towers, and it wanted pedestrians to be able to cross through to the Olive Street side of the development unimpeded, which required much of the museum to go below grade. (This means that visitors descend into the galleries rather than ascend — a bone that critics have picked over the years.)
This being MOCA, there was also high boardroom drama: Max Palevsky, a powerful museum trustee, decided he didn’t want pyramids or barrel vaults and demanded that Isozaki produce a plain box. The dispute got so acrimonious that Isozaki, along with various museum administrators, threatened to quit.
Palevsky was ultimately sidelined and Isozaki remained — and MOCA was built with a barrel vault library over the entrance.
Of his Los Angeles museum, Isozaki once said: “It seems Western in style, but the way in which it is resolved may, contrary to expectations, be pretty Japanese.”
In May, the architect will travel from his home in Japan to the Château de Versailles in France to receive the Pritzker medal at a special ceremony there. Once again, East and West meet.