Arata Isozaki, Prize-Winning Architect Behind MOCA L.A., Dies at 91 –

Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, a Pritzker Prize winner who designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, died this week at the age of 91 on December 28.

The Okinawa-based designer had an internationally renowned career that included major structures and several books. The printed volumes showcased how he combined and interpreted Eastern and Western traditions and Japanese building customs, as well as his architectural influences. Isozaki never repeated himself in his work.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles was Isozaki’s first international commission. However, it was complicated when a building committee forced Isozaki into a design he didn’t like, enough for him to tell the media. “I had to quit or be fired,” he said at the time.

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An woman in black turtleneck sits at a dinner table with pink and white flowers and a few lit candles.

Isozaki placed galleries under and around a courtyard facing a red sandstone-clad structure, breaking from architectural traditions for museums in the United States. With the help and advice of architect Frank Gehry, Isozaki was able to rescue his design through the support of a group of L.A. museum trustees.

“It was traumatizing for Iso,” Richard Koshalek, the director of the museum at the time, recently told the New York Times. “The building committee had assumed that his name would bring the project international prestige, while it could demand a portrait building in the self-image its members wanted. He didn’t acquiesce.”

It attempted to disturb architectural traditions for museums in America by placing galleries under and around a courtyard facing a red sandstone-clad structure.

Isozaki was born on July 23, 1931 in Oita, a city on the southwest island of Kyushu, and as the eldest of four children. At the age of 14, Isozaki witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima on the shore opposite of Oita. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would shape the basis of his work. “The future city lies in ruins,” he once wrote.

Isozaki also referred to war’s aftermath when he finally won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2019, his industry’s most prestigious award. “I grew up on ground zero,” he said. “There was no architecture, no buildings, and not even a city. So my first experience of architecture was the void of architecture, and I began to consider how people might rebuild their homes and cities.”

Before the MOCA L.A. commission in 1980, Isozaki spent nearly twenty years of his architecture career designing structures inside Japan, primarily on the southern island of Kyushu. The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma was the first of his museum commissions in 1971. He also designed the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art in Fukuoka, which opened in 1974, and the Nagi Museum Of Contemporary Art, which opened in 1994.

His marriage to the Japanese sculptor Aiko Miyawaki in 1972 introduced him to artists like Man Ray and the German painter Hans Richter.

His transformative work was frequently featured in exhibitions on architecture, including several at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a survey at MOCA L.A. in 1991, and a similar exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1993.

In 1979, Izosaki’s traveling show “Ma: Space/Time in Japan,” came to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian design museum in New York. It introduced the Japanese concept of ma: negative space through pauses, intervals, or emptiness between objects and periods of time.

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