Nuclear attacks happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and there lived a 14-year-old kid who wondered how those lost homes would be rebuilt! His name was Arata Isozaki. Born in Otia City in Japan in 1931, he is today recognized as the recipient of the Pritzker Prize 2019. A graduate from the Department of Architecture in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo, he also completed his Ph.D. from the same department.
“When I was old enough to begin an understanding of the world, my hometown was burned down. Across the shore, the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, so I grew up near ground zero. It was in complete ruins, 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.”
Arata Isozaki studied under Kenzo Tange, a former Pritzker recipient and worked with him from 1954 -1963. Even as he set up his own practice, he still worked with Tange occasionally into the 1970s, a trait of Japanese architects who focus on collaboration rather than competition. It was in 1963 that he set up his own private practice called Arata Isozaki & Associates. Isozaki, the 46th Laureate of the Pritzker Prize, is the eight Japanese Architect to receive this recognition and has completed more than 100 buildings in Asia, Europe, North America, Australia, and the Middle East.
‘I wanted to see the world through my own eyes, so I traveled around the globe at least ten times before I turned thirty. 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 U.S. I was trying to find any opportunities to do so, and through this, I kept questioning, “what is architecture?”’ says Isozaki.
Post-WWII, Japan was still recovering and reinventing, trying to find solutions to the problems caused by the global war and release from the Allied Occupation, Arata knew that he could not follow a single style and had to address each problem contextually and his buildings reflected different influences at different points in time. And in his own words, “Change became constant. Paradoxically, this came to be my own style.”
(L-R) Ceramic Park Mino, photo courtesy of Hisao Suzuki; Palau Sant Jordi, photo courtesy of Hisao Suzuki; Nara Centennial Hall, photo courtesy of Hisao Suzuki; LUCERNE FESTIVAL ARK NOVA, photo courtesy of Iwan Baan; Qatar National Convention Center, photo courtesy of Hisao Suzuki, Kitakyushu Central Library, photo courtesy of Yasuhiro Ishimoto (Source: The Pritzker Prize website)
“I’ve always felt that the most important thing is finding a way of escaping the framework or aesthetic consciousness with which I am burdened.”
Starting with public buildings in his hometown, The Oita Medical Center (1960), the 1966 Oita Prefectural Library (picture below), his works reflect his experiments with cubes and the ideas of the Japanese movement called Metabolism which meant designing buildings as living cells. These structures had a spine like an infrastructure with prefabricated replaceable cells to be replaced when the life span is over.
His first high profile project which marked the beginning of his museum commissions was The Gunma Museum of Modern Art (1974) in Takasaki City.
MOCA in LA (1986) led to him becoming one of Walt Disney’s architects and it was his first commission in the United States.
Arata Isozaki’s works have always been characterized by strong shapes, bold forms, and inventive detailing. The more recent projects like Ark Nova Japan is an air-inflated 500 seat mobile concert hall made from a plastic membrane. The Qatar Convention Centre shows how easily he played with the curves to create an interesting façade with tree-like columns that hold the overhanging roof of the largest convention center in the middle east referencing the holy Islamic Sidrat al-Muntaha tree. Back in 1992, his liking for vernacular architecture showed in Palau Sant Jordi, Spain; a 17,000-seat arena which was sheltered by a domed roof informed by traditional Catalan Vaults finished using local materials like brick, tile, zinc, etc. The Shanghai Symphony Hall in China boasts of a saddle-shaped terracotta tile clad building, sitting on giant springs to protect from the subway system below. Art Tower in Mito is a sculpture in itself with its shiny triangles and tetrahedrons.
“The most important thing an artist can do is confront society with something it has never seen before, something in a sense improper.”
The jury for the Pritzker Prize 2019 comprised of US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Brazilian diplomat André Aranha Corrêa do Lago, former Pritzker prize winners Richard Rogers, Kazuyo Sejima and Wang Shu, Benedetta Tagliabue – director of the internationally acclaimed architecture firm EMBT Miralles Tagliabue and Ratan N Tata, a graduate from Cornell University and the Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata Group.
Although Arata Isozaki started with designing buildings in Japan, his later works are spread across the globe from Tokyo to Milan, and Doha to Qatar. He has written extensively although not many of his writings have been translated. He has also hosted solo exhibitions that have toured various nations for as long as three years. He has also been an eminent member of juries for various competitions in which renowned architects like Rem Koolhaas and Toyo Ito have been participants. He has also been a visiting professor in many architecture schools like the Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia University, and the University of Hawaii. “He has set an example of generosity as he supports other architects and encourages them in competitions or through collaborative works”, the Jury says.
On winning the Pritzker Prize 2019, the jury citation said, “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. Possessing a profound knowledge of architectural history and theory, and embracing the avant-garde, he never merely replicated the status quo but challenged it. And 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.”
On his diverse body of work, that involves both Japanese and American influences, the Jury quotes, “Isozaki’s oeuvre has been described as heterogeneous and encompasses descriptions from vernacular to high tech. What is patently clear is that he has not been following trends but forging his own path.”