Biography of Arata Isozaki

Father of Japanese New Wave, b. 1931

Press photo of Arata Isozaki, white-haired, regal Japanese man.
Arata Isozaki. Press photo (cropped) from city-life.it

Arata Isozaki (born July 23, 1931 in Oita, Kyushu, Japan) has  been called "emperor of Japanese architecture" and "an engineer of controversy."  Some say he is Japan's guerrilla architect for defying conventions, challenging the status quo, and refusing to establish a "brand" or architectural look. Japanese architect Arata Isozaki is known for using bold, exaggerated forms and inventive detailing.

Born and educated in Japan, Arata Isozaki often integrates Eastern ideas into his designs.

For example, in 1990 Isozaki wanted to express a yin-yang theory of positive and negative space when he designed the Team Disney Building in Orlando, Florida. Also, because the offices were to be used by time-conscious executives, he wanted the architecture to make a statement about time.

Serving as offices for the Walt Disney Corporation, the Team Disney Building is a startling postmodern landmark on the otherwise barren stretch of Florida's Route I-4. The oddly looped gateway suggests gigantic Mickey Mouse ears. At the building's core, a 120-foot sphere forms the world's largest sundial. Inside the sphere is a serene Japanese rock garden.

Isozaki's Team Disney design won a prestigious National Honor Award from the AIA in 1992. In 1986, Isozaki was awarded the prestigious Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Education and Professional Accomplishments

Arata Isozaki studied at the University of Tokyo, graduating in 1954 from the Department of Architecture in the Faculty of Engineering. In 1946, noted Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (1913–2005) had organized what became known as the Tange Laboratory at the University.

When Tange received the 1987 Pritzker Prize, the jury citation acknowledged Tange to be "an inspiring teacher" and noted that Arata Isozaki was one of the "well-known architects" who studied with him. Isozaki honed his own ideas about Postmodernism with Tange. After school, Isozaki continued an apprenticeship with Tange for nine years before establishing his own firm in 1963, Arata Isozaki & Associates.

Isozaki's first commissions were public buildings for his hometown. The Oita Medical Center (1960), the 1966 Oita Prefectural Library (now an art plaza), and the Fukuoka Sogo Bank, Oita Branch (1967) were experiments in concrete cubes and Metabolist concepts.

The Gunma Museum of Modern Art (1974) in Takasaki City was a more high-profile and refined example of his previous work—stacked concrete cubes—and the beginning of his museum architecture commissions. His first US commission was in Los Angeles, California, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in 1986, which led Isozaki to become one of Walt Disney's architects. His design for the Team Disney Building in Orlando, Florida (1990) put him on America's Postmodernist map.

Arata Isozaki is known for using bold, exaggerated forms and inventive detailing.

The Art Tower Mito (ATM) in Ibaraki, Japan (1990) bears this out. An otherwise subdued, low-level arts complex has at its center a shiny, metallic array of triangles and tetrahedrons rising over 300 feet as an observation deck to the cultural buildings and the Japanese landscape.

Other notable buildings designed by Arata Isozaki & Associates include the Sports Hall, Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Spain (1992); Kyoto Concert Hall in Japan (1995); Domus Museum of Mankind in La Coruña, Spain (1995); the Nara Convention Center (Nara Centennial Hall), Nara, Japan (1999); and the Weill Cornell Medical College, Qatar (2003).

In China's 21st century building boom, Isozaki has designed the Shenzhen Cultural Center (2005), the Hezheng Museum of Natural History (2008), and with Yasushisa Toyota he's finished Shanghai Symphony Hall (2014).

Well into his 80s, Arata Isozaki took on the CityLife Project in Milan, Italy. Along with Italian architect Andrea Maffei, Isozaki completed the Allianz Tower in 2015. With 50 floors above the ground, the Allianz is one of the tallest structures in all of Italy. The modern skyscraper is stabilized by four buttresses. "It was possible to use more traditional techniques," Maffei told designboom.com, "but we preferred to emphasize the mechanics of the skyscraper, leaving them exposed and emphasizing them with a gold color."

New Wave Styles

Many critics have identified Arata Isozaki with the movement known as Metabolism. More often, Isozaki is seen as the catalyst behind the imaginative, Japanese New Wave architecture. "Beautifully detailed and composed, often conceptually powerful, the buildings typical of this avant-garde group are strongly single-minded," writes Joseph Giovannini in The New York Times. The critic goes on to describe the design of MOCA:

" Pyramids of various sizes serve as skylights; a half-cylinder barrel roof covers the library; the main forms are cubic. The galleries themselves have a visual stillness about them that is particularly Japanese....Not since the French architectural visionaries of the 18th century has an architect used solid geometric volumes with such clarity and purity, and never with his sense of playfulness. "—Joseph Giovannini, 1986

Learn More

  • Arata Isozaki by Arata Isozaki and Ken Tadashi Oshima, Phaidon, 2009
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  • Japan-ness in Architecture, essays by Arata Isozaki, MIT Press, 2006
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  • The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma by Arata Isozaki, Phaidon, 1996
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  • New Wave Japanese Architecture by Kisho Kurokawa, Wiley, 1993
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Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Modern Architecture by Kenneth Frampton, 3rd ed., T&H 1992, pp. 283-284; Arata Isozaki: From Japan, A New Wave of International Architects by Joseph Giovannini, The New York Times, August 17, 1986 [accessed June 17, 2015]; Interview with Andrea Maffei on the Realization of Milan's Allianz Tower by philip stevens, designboom, November 3, 2015 [accessed July 12, 2017]

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