Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Arata Isozaki won the 2019 Pritzker Prize

Arata Isozaki’s Team Disney building in Orlando. Photo by Xinai Liang.

Here’s what I told Curbed:

Selecting Arata Isozaki for the 2019 Pritzker Prize is a bit of a head-scratcher. While Japanese architecture has been ascendant worldwide, and Isozaki began his career working for 1987 Pritzker laureate Kenzo Tange, he and his work have not been part of the conversation in recent decades. That’s largely because his heyday, and the peak of his international reputation, was in the 1980s. In other words, peak postmodernism.

Barrel vaults, rooflines like pointy hats, walls that look like gridded paper, all of these are part of his repertoire. If Americans know one of his buildings it is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1986), a collection of all of those design elements. I would love to see his award as a sign that the Pritzker jury has read the cultural tea leaves, and sees that postmodernism has re-entered the wider cultural conversation, both as a style that needs preservation, and as a style whose playfulness feels generative. But “postmodern flair” is only mentioned once, in the context of his Disney Team Building (1991) in Orlando, where flair kind of goes without saying.

His first U.S. project was the Palladium nightclub (1985), about which Paul Goldberger wrote approvingly, in the New York Times, that owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were beating MOCA to the architectural punch: “It could almost be dismissed as a cynical exploitation of architecture’s current trendiness—if the results were not so truly excellent.”

The Pritzker citation underlines Isozaki’s movement between East and West, both in terms of inspiration and clientele, as well as his support for younger Japanese architects—some of them now better known—who have come since.

That’s a nice story too, but it seems imposed rather than organic. The Pritzker has been swinging wildly in tone with its choices in recent years, picking legends (Balkrishna Doshi, Frei Otto) and social innovators (Alejandro Aravena, Shigeru Ban), and causing a fair amount of confusion (RCR Arquitectes). I would put Isozaki in the archival category, but is he legendary? It will take an honest reassessment of his work—and the Postmodernism project overall—to tell.