Arata Isozake, Pritzker Prize-Winning Architect, Dies at 91

Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, who received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2019, passed away December 28 in Okinawa at age 91. The prolific architect, known for challenging conventions and merging Eastern and Western traditions in his work, created spaces that served as catalysts for change, pushing the industry forward.

Throughout his illustrious career, Isozaki introduced Japanese concepts and philosophies into Eastern structures, drawing on spiritual traditions and, at times, his own sense of humor. A country club he designed in Japan, for instance, snakes around itself, taking on the shape of a question mark while hinting at the architect’s views on golf at the time of its construction.

As a self-professed member of the avant-garde, Isozaki’s works often sparked controversy. When asked to design the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1980—a project that kickstarted Isozaki’s career on a global scale—he faced steadfast resistance from a building committee, nearly forcing him to abandon the project. Under the guidance of Interior Design Hall of Famer Frank Gehry, however, Isozaki won over a group of museum trustees, securing his original design.

Like his career, Isozaki’s life also is built on resilience. Born in 1931 in Oita, Japan, Isozaki witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima as well as the bombing of his own town days after. “My first encounter with architecture was ground zero—no architecture, no city,” he shared during his Pritzker Prize speech. “I became interested in how architecture and a city could rise up.”

Arata Isozaki stars into the camera wearing a gray suit with his chin resting on his fist.
Arata Isozaki. Image © Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The notion that architecture holds the power to rebuild community and culture permeates his work. After earning a degree in architecture—and, later, a doctorate in the field—from the University of Tokyo, he began his career in early 1960s as an apprentice with Modernist firm Kenzo Tange before founding his own practice, Arata Isozaki & Associates, in Tokyo. While building up industry connections, the soft spoken yet bold architect cultivated an equally unconventional social circle, furthered by his marriage to Japanese sculptor, Aiko Miyawaki, in 1972, and the artists she met living in Paris. Not to mention, Isozaki’s draw to other creative pioneers, such as John Cage.

Radical ideas continuously shaped the structures he created, in Japan and throughout the world. After spending the early part of his career working close to home, Isozaki branched out, starting with his museum commission in Los Angeles in 1980. From a postmodernist building for Disney in Orlando, Florida, to a convention center supported by treelike forms in Doha, Qatar, Isozaki’s works solidified the role of architecture as a bastion of culture—one that invites introspection and awe through an experiential portal.

Throughout his career, Isozaki also penned several notable works on architecture including: “Japan-ness in Architecture,” which spotlighted the traditions of his home country. His international recognition though—notably the Pritzker Prize honor—was considered long overdue, receiving the award in his 80s after watching younger Japanese architects do so in prior years.

Yet Isozaki, indisputably, left his mark on the field for decades, perhaps, centuries to come, much like Andrea Palladio, renowned Italian Renaissance architect. In a 2009 film clip produced by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Isozaki joins his contemporaries in offering insights on Palladio’s works. He posits that Palladio could not envision the full impact of the spaces he designed during his life, noting that their influence was “realized after his death,” enabling people to experience a sliver of his imagination on closer inspection of such structures. Perhaps the same will be said of Isozaki.

Isozaki is survived by his longtime companion, Misa Shin, as well as his son, Hiroshi; a grandson; and a sister, Kimie.

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