Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, Hon. FAIA, has won the 2019 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Isozaki is the 46th individual to receive the Pritzker—and the eighth native of Japan—since American Philip Johnson received the initial award in 1979. Japan and the United States are now tied with the most laureates by nationality. The prize will be presented at a ceremony at the Palace of Versailles this May, with a public lecture in Paris.
Many of Isozaki’s early memories are of World War II. His hometown of Ōita is almost exactly midway between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States dropped atomic bombs in 1945, when he was 14. “When I was old enough to begin an understanding of the world, my hometown was burned down,” he says in his Pritzker Prize biography. “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 graduated in 1954 from the University of Tokyo and worked for 1987 Pritzker Prize laureate Kenzo Tange before opening his own office in 1963. Over six decades, Isozaki’s work has spanned numerous stylistic variations, indicative of an inquiring sensibility that has embodied many global movements over the period. And global offices have followed in course: In 1984, he opened Arata Isozaki & Asociados España in Barcelona, Spain; in 2004, he opened Arata Isozaki & Associates Shanghai, now known as Isozaki+HuQian Partners; and in 2005, he co-founded Arata Isozaki & Andrea Maffei Associati in Milan with Italian architect Andrea Maffei.
His most important early work was built in his hometown. The jury citation calls the Ōita Prefectural Library (1966) “a masterpiece of Japanese Brutalism.” No longer used as a library, the building was repurposed as an art gallery in 1996.
Three built structures in the United States include the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles (1986), Team Disney in Orlando, Fla. (1991), and the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio (1999). The first two combine the neo-rationalist and postmodern sensibilities that were emblematic of the period. MOCA’s design combines arches, red sandstone, and pyramidal skylights to provide an abstracted image perfectly suited to establishing a logo that is indistinguishable from the building. The Team Disney building features a central six-story-tall open-roofed rotunda that operates as an enormous sundial. COSI appends a long, low, curving form to a modest existing structure, and reprises a central rotunda, albeit in more modest form. Each of Isozaki’s American buildings seem to balance a boldness of forms with a desire for quiet modesty—a difficult knife edge to tread.
His lifelong interest in both local and global culture—and a desire to bring people together—are obvious in a project from the late 1980s. Isozaki invited a group of architects, including Steven Holl, FAIA, and 2000 Pritzker Prize laureate Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, to design housing in Fukuoka, Japan. The structures reflect a specific moment in time, but are also indicative of Isozaki’s generosity of spirit in providing architecturally significant housing while supporting his colleagues and peers.
More recently, the memorable canopy for his Qatar National Convention Centre (2011) in Doha is held aloft by two enormous branching columns—based on the local sidra tree—that create a long-span Seussian arboretum.
The choice of Isozaki as the 2019 laureate is a surprise, and yet not a surprise. One could imagine that Isozaki’s likely time to win the Pritzker was several decades ago, but few could find fault with the place of his work in history among fellow laureates.
When Isozaki won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 1986, he was only the second Japanese architect to win the award (Tange had won the same honor two decades earlier) and seemed a predictable Pritzker pick. In fact, Isozaki served on the jury for the prize from 1979 to 1984, indicating the professional esteem he held as an architect then in his late 40s and early 50s. Tange was named the first Japanese Pritzker laureate in 1987, followed by Isozaki’s contemporary Fumihiko Maki, Hon. FAIA, in 1993. The next quarter century would see five more Japanese winners, each between one and three decades younger than Isozaki.
Isozaki is the third oldest person to win the award—only Balkrishna Doshi, Hon. FAIA (2018) and Frei Otto (2015) were older—and Otto died after being selected, but before the announcement could be made public (the Pritzker is only awarded to living architects). Isozaki is the 10th winner to have been born in the 1930s, tying the number born in the 1920s.
From year to year, Pritzker Prize laureates seem to vacillate between valedictory plaudits for well-known career outputs and younger professionals whose career trajectories can be significantly altered by the immense spotlight and validation that the Pritzker bestows. The three oldest winners have all been selected in the past five years.
The 2019 Pritzker Architecture Prize jury was comprised of chair and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer; architecture critic and curator André Aranha Corrêa do Lago; 2007 Pritzker laureate and 2019 AIA Gold Medalist Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA; 2010 Pritzker laureate Kazuyo Sejima; architect Benedetta Tagliabue; chairman of Tata Group, Ratan N. Tata; 2012 Pritzker laureate Wang Shu; and executive director of the Pritzker Prize and dean of the Madrid's IE School of Architecture & Design, Martha Thorne.