The Pritzker Prize is known as the Nobel Prize of architecture for a reason. The prestigious award, given yearly, is designed to honour a living architect (or architects) whose work represents a significant contribution to humanity — no small feat, to be sure. A body of work is examined for vision, commitment, consistency, artistry, and of course, talent. The highest honour in the field comes with a $100,000 (USD) cash prize and a bronze medallion, which emulates the work of the “father of the skyscraper,” Louis Sullivan. On the flip side of the bronze disc are three simple words: firmness, commodity, delight. It’s a little triptych that echoes Vitruvius’ fundamental principles of architecture: firmitas, utilitas, venustas.
This year, that bronze medallion was placed in the hands of Arata Isozaki, a Japanese architect whose early life was perhaps more influential to his career path than most. Born in 1933, Isozaki was 14 and living in Ōita, Island of Kyushu, when the atomic bombs were dropped.
Hiroshima was just across the shore.
“I grew up near ground zero,” Isozaki shares via the Pritzker press materials. “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.”
It was this harrowing exposure to mass destruction as a teenager that instilled in Isozaki the notion that architecture is ephemeral; it must please the senses and function adequately in the moment. His structures often speak of movement, possessing a quality of transience no doubt rooted in this idea. Rooftops, ceilings, and even walls dilate with engineered grace. The Art Tower Mito rises out of the earth like a lost strand of DNA reaching for a body.
This idea of reaching is an underlying sentiment present in much of his work; throughout, shapes seem to reach towards light, any kind of light, as if seeking to commune in a place of belonging positioned ever so slightly beyond the known world. This lends a cathedral-like quality to the corridors and performance space of the Shanghai Symphony Hall; in the Tsukaba Center Building, it culminates in a celestial-like lighting design that brings to mind the aching existentialism of planetariums.
Isozaki’s career began in close proximity to another Pritzker laureate. After graduating from the Department of Architecture in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo in 1954, he began an apprenticeship with Kenzo Tange, who would go on to win the award in 1987. Just shy of a decade later, Isozaki branched out on his own and established Arata Isozaki & Associates. This came at a complex age in Japan’s history as the country regained its sovereignty from Allied occupation. What remained was a nation in need of being rebuilt, in both a literal and figurative sense. The war had left much of Japan in ruins, and creating new infrastructure resulted in a period of seismic shifts. Because of this, Isozaki was forced to become a creative problem solver. “Change became constant,” he says. “Paradoxically, this came to be my own style.”
His portfolio began at home and gradually broadened in direct correlation with the architect’s success and prestige. Soon he was designing structures in Osaka and Tokyo; by the early ’80s he had earned a global reputation and launched into projects in Los Angeles, Barcelona, and New York.
“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, Jury Chair, in the Pritzker foundation’s official announcement. “For many years, he has 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.”
Click through the gallery above for images of Isozaki’s most notable works.
Photos via the Pritzker Architecture Prize.