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Arata Isozaki (Japanese, born 1931)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Japanese architect, teacher and theorist. One of the leading architects of his generation, he became an influential proponent of the avant-garde conceptual approach to architecture that characterized the New Wave in Japan in the 1970s and after. He studied at the University of Tokyo under Kenzō Tange and after graduating (1954) he worked for Kenzō Tange & Urtec until 1963. From 1960 Isozaki began to develop his own practice, first as an architectural designer, completing the Ōita Medical Center (1960) and Ōita Prefectural Library (1966), and then as a theorist, loosely associated with Japanese Metabolism and creating such ironic projects as his ‘Ruin Future City’ and ‘Clusters in the Air’ (both 1962). His first large public commission was the Ōita branch of the Fukuoka Mutual Bank, completed in 1967. Other important public works followed in relatively rapid succession, and he quickly established his reputation with such buildings as the Gunma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art (1971–4), Takasaki; the Kitakyushu City Museum of Art (1972–4); the Kitakyushu Municipal Central Library (1972–5); and the West Japan General Exhibition Center (1977), Kitakyushu.

Isozaki took a critical position towards the Functionalist line in the Modern Movement, irrespective of whether this was expressed in the wakonyosai reinforced-concrete architecture of Tange or the visionary projects of the Metabolists. He favoured instead a conceptual approach that would bestow upon architecture an independent cultural significance. In pursuit of this goal, Isozaki attempted to evolve his own maniera, which was predicated as much on a subtle reinterpretation of Japanese culture as on the legacy of Japanese Modernism. His approach was initially inspired by the ironic observations of the Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965), who wrote a witty and perceptive elegy on the passing of the Japanese tradition in his famous text In’ei raisan (‘In praise of shadows’; 1933–4). In Yami no kukan (‘Spaces of darkness’; 1964), a paradoxical updating of this essay, Isozaki not only responded to Tanizaki’s nostalgia but also formulated an alternative technological aesthetic that he dubbed ‘twilight gloom’. He went on to combine this highly illusory, gridded, atectonic treatment of mass and space—first evident as a discernible mode in the small bank buildings he designed for the Fukuoka Mutual Bank between 1968 and 1971 (e.g. in Fukuoka, Tokyo and Saga)—with equally mannered devices drawn from the West, such as the Renaissance technique of anamorphic projection or disjunctive tropes drawn from the work of Adolf Loos and Marcel Duchamp.

Of his ‘twilight gloom’ aesthetic Isozaki wrote in 1972:The building has almost no form; it is merely a grey expanse. The multi-level grid guides one’s lines of sight but does not focus them on anything in particular. At first encounter, the vague grey expanse seems impossible to decipher and utterly odd. The multi-level lattice disperses vision throughout the space much as various images might be thrown around an area from a central projector. It absorbs all individual spaces that establish strict order. It conceals them, and when that concealment process is over, only the grey expanse remains. The process itself has an order of sanctity, like a brilliant crime committed in the midst of dusty daily life.This metal-clad, atectonic aesthetic was perfected in his Gunma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art and appeared last in its fully amplified form, in which everything is subjected to the same overriding grid, in his Shukosha Building (1975), Fukuoka City. In 1974 Isozaki characterized his Gunma Museum as so many Sol Lewitt ‘cubes on a lawn’, in which the membrane-like metal gridded coverings are only extended as far as needed for appropriate scenographic effect.

Between 1972 and 1975 Isozaki started to move away from his dematerialized atectonic manner to explore an architecture based on the tectonic form of the vault, as seen in the semicircular precast concrete vaults of his Kitakyushu Municipal Central Library and also in the shell concrete roof of his Fujimi Country Club (1974), Fujimi, planned in the form of a question mark that can only be seen as such from the air. Isozaki’s so-called ‘rhetoric of the cylinder’ culminated in the 1970s and early 1980s in a series of barrel-vaulted concrete houses, derived as much from primitive Japanese haniwa tombs as from the Western megaron. In 1980, however, fragmentary Post-modern historicist quotes began to appear in his work, disrupting the purity of its gridded form with stylistically disjunctive passages, as in his Tsukuba Civic Center (1983). This building is ‘cannibalistic’ in its use of Modernist references, for these are invaded by neo-classical tropes that are hard to identify (e.g. the rustication that is vaguely reminiscent of the work of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux), which are deliberately mixed up with episodes drawn from Isozaki’s gridded ‘twilight gloom’ manner. Isozaki followed this auto-destruction of his own late manner with a series of free sculptural compositions, including the administrative headquarters (1992) for the Disney Corporation in Orlando, FL. Perhaps the finest building of his late career, however, is one that formed part of his so-called ‘red desert’ sequence: the Museum of Contemporary Art (1987), Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.

In many respects Isozaki’s architecture can be seen as an aesthetic but savagely ironic comment on a spectacular but technologically ruined late modern reality. There is thus always an undercurrent of morbid scepticism lying beneath the exuberance of his aesthetic form—a darkness of spirit that became overt from time to time. In his Electric Labyrinth (1968), designed for the Triennale in Milan, for example, the exhibition was haunted by an image of the devastated Hiroshima, combined with traditional Japanese ghosts and demons representing the revengeful spirits of the nuclear disaster. Throughout his career Isozaki was a visiting professor of architecture at several universities, notably in the USA; his work was widely exhibited and won many awards.

Kenneth Frampton
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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