The Architect’s Newspaper is very happy that Arata Isozaki has won the 2019 Pritzker Prize, despite some grumbling to the contrary within online architectural circles.

The Pritzker is about lifetime achievement, so let’s start at the beginning. Isozaki began his career studying architecture after a childhood in which he witnessed profound destruction. “[During WWII] I was constantly confronted with the destruction and elimination of the physical objects that surrounded me. Japanese cities went up in flames. Forms that had been there an instant earlier vanished in the next.”

This darkness pervaded his work, especially the concept of impermanence and ruins. In his early career, he was involved with the Japanese theoretical group, the Metabolists, who were taking on the city as a large-scale biological process, producing some of the most visionary proposals of the post-war era. However, Isozaki believed that they were too naïve and positive, and that architecture needed to (paradoxically) build for death and destruction as well as life and progress. Isozaki became more aligned with what would come to be known as postmodernism in the Venturian or Jencksian sense when he broke from both hardcore modernists like the CIAM and the Metabolists. For Isozaki, the city was not a place of activism or functionalism, but rather a place of memory and poetic imagination.

He took the Metabolists’ love for viewing the built environment as a living organism and imbued their rational, hardcore functionalism with a more artistic, human-scale, colorful approach. His Oita Prefecture Library and the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art both took on the Brutalist concrete aesthetic, but treated the building as a body with connected parts, rather than an aggregation of cells or individual units as in Metabolism. In both the library and art museum, views are framed by cantilevered “eyes.”

In addition to his bodily references in buildings, Isozaki was an early protagonist of experiments in the relationship between architecture and performance art. His Demonstration Robot, part of the extravagant Metabolist Osaka ’70 expo, made an architectural-scale human that could host events on a stage while reconfiguring itself on an even larger stage. These performance architectures incorporated principles of the nascent performance art movement of the 1970s and foreshadowed projects like OMA’s Transformer or the work of Andres Jaque or Diller Scofidio + Renfro. However, soon after the expo, he fell physically ill and ended up in the hospital because he felt guilty for promoting a technologically positivist viewpoint of modernism.

Rising from his profound experience in the hospital, Isozaki formulated a theory of architecture that would guide what would be his most significant work. The crux: “Space equals darkness, time equals termination (escatology), and matter, or architecture and cities, equals ruin and ashes.” This represented his unique version of the postmodern linguistic turn, as he engaged with semiotics and form-giving through the lens of impermanence and ruin. He saw the void, negative space, and ruin as the rhetorical and cultural antithesis of architecture.

Photo of a large white robot with people inside

Arata Isozaki’s Demostration Robot (Courtesy Flickr/rbdx)

Isozaki had already been exploring these ideas in Electric Labyrinth for the 1968 Milan Triennale. He created an installation of large silk prints showing the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alongside futurist visions of the Metabolists. This metaphorical evocation of these tragic events juxtaposed with the architectural positivism illustrated Isozaki’s cynicism about Metabolism, but also his reluctance to subscribe to any style in favor of his own underlying conceptual affinities, such as temporality, impermanence, irony, and collages of ideas and spaces.

This collage mentality was developed at the building scale in one of the most aggressive examples of historicism in the postmodern era and one of Isozaki’s most influential projects. According to Emmanuel Petit in Irony; or, The Self-critical Opacity of Post-modern Architecture, the Tsukuba Civic Centre “emerged as an assemblage of fragments diachronically cut from diverse historical contexts. The building’s composite anatomy of recognisable architectural fragments surfaces as a ‘group portrait,’ in Isozaki’s own words, comprising materials taken from such diverse sources as Michelangelo, Ledoux, Giulio Romano, Otto Wagner, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Charles Moore, Aldo Rossi, Hans Hollein, Peter Cook, Adalberto Libera, Philip Johnson, Leon Krier, Lawrence Halprin, and Ettore Sottsass.” The project assembled these fragments into a sort of bodily composition meant to sit in contrast with the gridded rigidity of the rest of the town. The invented and somewhat arbitrary historical narrative paradoxically provided context for a town that had little real history.

Portrait of Arata Isozaki

Arata Isozaki (Courtesy The Hyatt Foundation/The Pritzker Architecture Prize)

Perhaps Isozaki’s most important project was his design for the Palladium nightclub in New York, which opened in 1985 and closed in 1997. The lavish Beaux Arts interior of the former theater was augmented with a white grid and an orgy of light, sound, projection, and music that created what he saw as a technological environment. Like the Osaka robot, the relationship of architecture and bodies was in constant feedback, while Isozaki’s critical ideas about the false utopias of modernism came through via his references to “ghost-figures” of the Edo period of Japanese history and the ruins of Hiroshima.

Later in his career, Isozaki was again able to adapt to the times, as his work became less critical and more elegant. Many architects enter what Jencks would call a “late-mellow” phase, and Isozaki’s was not unexciting. Beautiful, competent buildings such as the Shanghai Symphony, Palm Springs Desert Shelters, and the slightly wacky Qatar Convention Center.

But the Pritzker (and architecture in general) is not just about finished projects. It is about ideas, drawings, and writing. Isozaki also had an influence on drawing with “120 Invisible Cities,” a series of speculative projects made with a silkscreen technique. Precursors to Illustrator graphics and cartoonish renderings that pervade architecture’s avant-garde today, Isozaki’s flattened graphics were also used on the Los Angeles MOCA project. He also used the silkscreen method for his entry for the New Tokyo City Hall competition, which he lost to Kenzo Tange. Isozaki even made an early foray into the digital, producing some computer drawings for the City Hall project in 1986.

Let’s face it—the Pritzker Prize is a relic from another era. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t serve as a useful tool for highlighting the great minds of the discipline and profession of architecture. Isozaki might not be the most avant-garde, politically correct pick at first Google, but for those who are paying attention, it is a great capstone on a truly incredible career.

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