This year’s Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s highest honor, has been awarded to 87-year-old Japanese architect, planner, and theorist Arata Isozaki. Credited as a connector between the East and the West, Isozaki has completed over 100 projects throughout Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Australia in a span of over six decades.
Born in 1931 in Ōita, Japan, Isozaki began his career in an era of rebuilding for his country following the devastating events of World War II. While he built quite a few works in Japan early on (Ōita Medical Hall, 1960, and Ōita Prefectural Library, 1966, are two hometown examples), Isozaki has always been globally-minded and is one of the first Japanese architects to build abroad. “I wanted to see the world through my own eyes, so I traveled around the globe at least ten times before I turned thirty,” the architect has said.
Some of Isozaki’s best-known buildings around the world include the Museum of Contemporary Art (1986) in Los Angeles, the Sant Jordi Stadium (1990) for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the Team Disney building (1991) in Orlando, Florida, and more recently, the Qatar Convention Center (2011) and the Allianz Tower in Milan, which opened last year.
According to jury citations, Isozaki’s buildings “defy categorizations, reflect his constant evolution, and are always fresh in their approach.” Look through his work and you’ll find an inspired mix of Brutalism, postmodern, high tech, vernacular, modern, and so on. Deeply learned in philosophy, history, theory, and culture, Isozaki responded to projects with, as the jury notes, “interdisciplinary solutions that reflect deep sensitivity to specific contextual, environmental, and societal needs.”
The jury also highlights Isozaki’s dedication to supporting young architects, citing initiatives like the Fukuoka Nexus World Housing project (1988-1991) and the Toyama Prefecture’s Machi-no-Kao (“face of the city”) program (1991-1999), in which Isozaki invited young architects worldwide to develop “catalytic projects” in Japan.
What does Isozaki’s award mean in the context of the Pritzker Prize and the current architecture conversation? Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange offers some insight.
Selecting Arata Isozaki for the 2019 Pritzker Prize is a bit of a head-scratcher. While Japanese architecture has been ascendant worldwide, and Isozaki began his career working for 1987 Pritzker laureate Kenzo Tange, he and his work have not been part of the conversation in recent decades. That’s largely because his heyday, and the peak of his international reputation, was in the 1980s. In other words, peak postmodernism.
Barrel vaults, rooflines like pointy hats, walls that look like gridded paper, all of these are part of his repertoire. If Americans know one of his buildings it is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1986), a collection of all of those design elements. I would love to see his award as a sign that the Pritzker jury has read the cultural tea leaves, and sees that postmodernism has re-entered the wider cultural conversation, both as a style that needs preservation, and as a style whose playfulness feels generative. But “postmodern flair” is only mentioned once, in the context of his Disney Team Building (1991) in Orlando, where flair kind of goes without saying.
His first U.S. project was the Palladium nightclub (1985), about which Paul Goldberger wrote approvingly, in the New York Times, that owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were beating MOCA to the architectural punch: “It could almost be dismissed as a cynical exploitation of architecture’s current trendiness—if the results were not so truly excellent.”
The Pritzker citation underlines Isozaki’s movement between East and West, both in terms of inspiration and clientele, as well as his support for younger Japanese architects—some of them now better known—who have come since.
That’s a nice story too, but it seems imposed rather than organic. The Pritzker has been swinging wildly in tone with its choices in recent years, picking legends (Balkrishna Doshi, Frei Otto) and social innovators (Alejandro Aravena, Shigeru Ban), and causing a fair amount of confusion (RCR Arquitectes). I would put Isozaki in the archival category, but is he legendary? It will take an honest reassessment of his work—and the Postmodernism project overall—to tell.