Japan’s Arata Isozaki Wins the 2019 Pritzker Architecture Prize
The field’s highest honour goes to a prolific architect whose designs bridge theories and cultures around the world
The 87-year-old is known as an architect’s architect who deftly creates awe-inspiring buildings around the world using local building techniques while carefully interpreting sites, applying meaningful context and intensely focusing on details.
In addition to his “profound knowledge of architectural history and theory”, the Pritzker jury said in its citation, Isozaki (pictured) is also an artist who embraces the avant-garde rather than the status quo.
“In his search for meaningful architecture, he created buildings of great quality that to this day defy categorizations, reflect his constant evolution, and are always fresh in their approach,” the citation says.
The Japanese concept of ma, which emphasises the relationship between time and form, heavily guided Isozaki’s work. “Like the universe, architecture comes out of nothing, becomes something, and eventually becomes nothing again,” he told The New York Times after learning he’d won the award. “That life cycle from birth to death is a process I want to showcase.”
Perhaps most significantly, Isozaki made a point of developing an international relationship that fostered a dialogue between Japan and the rest of the world.
“Setting up his own practice in the 1960s, Isozaki became the first Japanese architect to forge a deep and long-lasting relationship between East and West,” the jury said.
Isozaki’s first international commission, The Museum of Contemporary Art (1981-86) in Los Angeles, California, catapulted him onto the global stage.
“The red Indian sandstone building was resolved by Isozaki’s eloquent awareness of scale through an assemblage of volumes, while employing the golden ratio and yin yang theory throughout, evoking the complementary nature of western and eastern relationships,” the jury said.
Isozaki was born in Ōita, on the island of Kyushu, Japan, in 1931. At age 14, his homeland was in ruins from World War II. “When I was old enough to begin an understanding of the world, my hometown was burned down,” he told the jury. “Across the shore, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, so I grew up near ground zero.
“It was in complete ruins,” said, “and there was no architecture, no buildings and 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.”
Isozaki found early success in Japan during the rebuilding of his country after the war, but not before travelling extensively. “I wanted to see the world through my own eyes, so I travelled around the globe at least 10 times before I turned 30,” he told the jury.
“I wanted to feel the life of people in different places and visited extensively inside Japan, but also to the Islamic world, villages in the deep mountains of China, South East Asia, and metropolitan cities in the US,” he said. “I was trying to find any opportunities to do so, and through this, I kept questioning, ‘What is architecture?’”
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Isozaki graduated from the department of architecture in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo in 1954 and began his career as an apprentice under 1987 Pritzker Prize winner Kenzo Tange.
He then established Arata Isozaki & Associates in 1963 and, while his country was still reeling from the political, economic and physical consequences of war, began rebuilding in his hometown with the Ōita Prefectural Library (1962-66).
He soon expanded with notable works elsewhere in Japan, including Gunma’s Museum of Modern Art (1971-74) and Osaka’s Expo ’70 Festival Plaza (1966-70). “In order to find the most appropriate way to solve these problems, I could not dwell upon a single style,” he told the jury. “Change became constant. Paradoxically, this came to be my own style.”
“Isozaki is a pioneer in understanding that the need for architecture is both global and local – that those two forces are part of a single challenge,” says Justice Stephen Breyer, the jury chair for the award. “For many years, he’s been trying to make certain that areas of the world that have long traditions in architecture are not limited to that tradition, but help spread those traditions while simultaneously learning from the rest of the world.”
“My concept of architecture is that it’s invisible,” the Okinawa-based architect told The New York Times. “It’s intangible. But I believe it can be felt through the five senses.”
The prize ceremony will take place in France in May, accompanied by a public lecture in Paris.
Browse more of Isozaki’s notable buildings below