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Sunday, June 1, 2008

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Arata Isozaki: astonishing by design

He may be almost 77, but there's no end to his groundbreaking ideas


Staff writer

If the entire Japanese architectural fraternity was one big royal family, then Arata Isozaki would be a king approaching the end of a long and glorious reign.

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Archi-magician: Arata Isozaki at his Roppongi studio in Tokyo (above), and one of his current projects, the Qatar National Library (below), which draws on a plan he had for a "city in the sky" in the 1960s. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO (above); ARATA ISOZAKI & ASSOCIATES (below)
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The "pedigree" of this majestically silver-maned 76-year-old is, quite simply, faultless.

Architecturally speaking, Isozaki's "father" was the great Kenzo Tange — best known for his 1950 Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the National Gymnasium in Yoyogi built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Isozaki was taught by Tange at the prestigious University of Tokyo in the early 1960s — along with those other architectural luminaries, Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki.

But then, tracing Isozaki's architectural roots back past Tange leads straight to Kunio Maekawa, with whom Tange worked just before World War II. In terms of modern Japanese architecture, it might well be said that Maekawa was the first, the original king before Isozaki. After working for Le Corbusier in Paris in the 1920s, Maekawa became one of the most important interpreters of Modernist architecture in Japan.

Like any great monarch, however, Isozaki's conquests gradually spread further and further afield as they mirrored the growth of his stature. Beginning in 1964 with a humble public library in his native Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, his next large projects were dotted around Tokyo's outskirts, including the Museum of Modern Art, Gunma (1974), the Tsukuba Center Building (1983) and Art Tower Mito (1990).

In these works he developed an original style built around simple concrete forms — giant rectangular prism-shaped galleries perched on stilts for the Gunma museum, for example, or spherical, pyramid-shaped and cubic masses arranged like children's building blocks across a site at Tsukuba and Mito.

Then, by 1982, Isozaki was pioneering Japanese architecture overseas, making the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1986) and the Team Disney building in Florida (1991). In the United States, he also found that his playful use of shapes segued nicely with the dominant postmodernist penchant for a decorative flourish. For the Disney Building, he gave each of its component shapes a different color, and even incorporated a subtle Mickey Mouse reference in the form of an entrance hall shaped like the cartoon rodent's ears.

Next month, Isozaki celebrates his 77th birthday — traditionally a highly significant age for Japanese people. Yet the architect, who now has his own "heirs" (former employees such as Shigeru Ban and Jun Aoki, who have now established their own reputations overseas), is showing no signs of slowing down. Indeed, amid his hyperhectic schedule, he even took time between business trips to talk to The Japan Times at his studio in Roppongi — not only about his latest works in China and the Middle East, but also about his own birthday plans as well.

The media often refer to the amazing construction booms happening now in China and the Middle East, but what it is like to be involved in all that as an architect?

It's not like I deliberately chase the booms. Someone will call and invite me to participate in a competition somewhere, so I enter, and, if I'm lucky, I win. Then, all of a sudden I'm working in China, or the Middle East.

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High points: Art Plaza (top), formerly Oita Prefectural Library, which was completed in 1964 in Oita City in Kyushu, was the first building about which Isozaki says "I felt I could make my own original architecture." The architect currently has several large projects in China, including the Shanghai Zendai Himalayas Art Center (above and below). RYUJI MIYAMOTO (top); ARATA ISOZAKI & ASSOCIATES (above and below)
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You have experienced many construction booms — Japan had one in the 1980s. What characterizes the current China boom?

In China, the problem was that in a very short period of time a huge number of buildings had to be made. That is partly because the population is so huge, and partly because once a development policy is passed it is implemented immediately. However, to nurture architects you need time — for their education, for them to gain experience. You just can't do that in 10 years; it takes 20 or 30.

I believe the Chinese government realized they didn't have the knowhow to do the design and construction necessary, so they decided to allow a lot of foreign companies into the market. That happened around the end of the 1980s. It was something that Deng Xiaoping started.

What kind of work are you now doing in China?

In any city it is necessary for 95 to 99 percent of the buildings to be residential, commercial or business. Of course, with these buildings you have to maintain a certain standard of architecture. But it is also necessary to have a small percentage of buildings that are architectural standouts, and they should be the city's cultural facilities. My policy has always been to focus on these cultural facilities — museums, libraries, universities, convention centers and so on. I like to partner developers who share this way of thinking. In China at the moment, I have a few projects under construction: the Shenzhen Cultural Center, in Shenzhen, for one. That is a concert hall. Then there's the Central Academy of Fine Arts' Museum of Contemporary Art in Beijing.

Has the Central Academy museum opened already?

It is opening in October. It's pretty much completed now, with the school using part of the building already. The grand opening will be in October.

Your buildings used to be known for their use of cubes, pyramids and other simple shapes, but this is a very organic form with lots of curves. Where did that idea come from?

That way of thinking emerged during a certain period when I was doing a number of jobs. For example, the Domus: La Casa del Hombre in La Coruna in Spain, which was a museum focusing on the human body. It was completed in 1995. That was one of the first jobs that incorporated organic curves. At that time, works using curves started appearing more and more. The Central Academy job is a continuation of that, but at the same time, it further develops it. The entire structure there is complex and organic.

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