On the death of Arata Isozaki, who left behind a body of work on three continents

Japan's World Architect

Ulf Meyer
5. de gener 2023
Photo: Mao Meyer

There are few (Japanese) architects who, like Arata Isozaki, have the ability both to think and write brilliantly and to come up with an extensive built oeuvre that demonstrates mutability. The figurehead of Japanese postmodernism passed away at the end of 2022 at the age of 91. It was only in 2019 that his life's work was honored with the Pritzker Prize, arguably the most important architecture prize in the world.

Over six decades, Isozaki played a decisive role in shaping the architectural discourse in Asia and around the world — both as a designer and as an author and theorist. Isozaki took on many roles: As a student of Kenzo Tange (1913–2005), he was the first architect to break free from the Metabolist movement that flourished in Japan in the 1960s. In the 1970s, because of his excellent international connections, he became the most important mediator between the postmodern discourse in the West and his homeland.

Like no other Japanese architect, Isozaki subsequently received commissions all over the world: from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in downtown Los Angeles to the Congress Center in Doha, Qatar, from the Allianz Tower in Milan to the Palau Sant Jordi sports stadium in Barcelona. Even in Germany, which tends to oppose the import of Japanese architecture, Isozaki implemented two interesting buildings: a residential building in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, which attracted a great deal of attention at the 1987 International Building Exhibition (IBA), and an office building not far from Potsdamer Platz (formerly Berliner Volksbank) with a characteristic brown ceramic facade and window shapes reminiscent of Greyhound buses. His honorary membership in the Association of German Architects (BDA) resulted from this successful IBA period.

Isozaki designed a residential building in Berlin-Kreuzberg for the 1987 International Building Exhibition. (Photo © Gunnar Klack)
The former office building of Berliner Volksbank near Potsdamer Platz in the German capital city (Photo © Joachim Kohler)

Isozaki's epochal buildings in the United States were more garish and fancier than those in Berlin: The building for the Walt Disney entertainment company in Orlando, Florida, for example, became Isozaki's manifesto of a bright, colorful and pop-cultural postmodernism of images and symbols. Italy and Spain also proved to be fertile grounds for Isozaki's conception of architecture: From the Casa de Hombre and the Coliseum in A Coruña to the Caixa Forum in Barcelona or the ice stadium in Turin, his projects have left their mark on several cities in southern Europe.

The Caixa Forum is a cultural center in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo © Canaan)
Important museums and grand halls — Isozaki's buildings in Asia

In Japan, it is particularly Isozaki's hometown of Oita on the island of Kyushu and the Tsukuba Science City, located northeast of Tokyo, where Isozaki's buildings have shaped the urban landscape. Oita is home to seminal early works by the architect, including the Prefectural Library and the striking Medical Hall.

Early in his career, Isozaki developed new approaches to contemporary museum architecture, which he continued to refine in many designs, starting with the museum in Kitakyushu. The museums of art in Gunma and Okayama show Isozaki's evolution from breaking with the geometric doctrine of classical modernism to a carefree, postmodern conception of buildings as collages.

For the Museum of Modern Arts in Takasaki, built in 1974, Isozaki translated his concept of "frame and void" into twelve-meter cubes that form a "stage of art." Their dimensionless and thus hierarchy-less spatial grids radiate a calmness that is called "Ma" in Japanese; Isozaki designed the gallery spaces as "voids for the effect of art." Another important building type that Isozaki cultivated and mastered were wide-span halls such as the elegant Centennial Hall in Nara from 1998 or the concert halls of Kyoto, Shenzhen and Thessaloniki.

The multifunctional Palau Sant Jordi sports arena in Barcelona (Photo © Victoriano Javier Tornel García)
Isozaki the architect was also a clever theorist

As the author of the book titled Japan-ness in Architecture (original title: Kenchiku ni okeru 'Nihon-teki na mono'), Isozaki left behind an enduring work regarding the examination of Japan's architecture. In it, Isozaki interprets the central sites of Japanese architectural tradition, such as the Ise Shrine and Katsura Villa in Kyoto, in a contemporary manner. Isozaki will be missed in posterity not only as an architect mediating between the architecture of East Asia and the West, but more importantly as a wise and eloquent architectural theorist and author. Isozaki died on December 28 in Okinawa.

Ulf Meyer is an internationally recognized expert on Japanese architecture. He is currently working on an annotated German translation of Isozaki's Kenchiku ni okeru 'Nihon-teki na mono'. It will be published later this year by AK Edition.

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