MOCA Los Angeles architect Arata Isozaki dies at 91

In March 1982, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art held a press conference to unveil Japanese architect Arata Isozaki’s new designs for the Grand Avenue building. The event marked an important milestone for a project that has been under construction for years. However, as the presentation progressed, things went off the rails.

For Isozaki, his first international project, MOCA, was mission critical. At the time, he was well known in his hometown of Japan, where he had a number of successful buildings under his belt, including the Gunma Museum of Modern Art, which was completed in 1974. This structure consists of adjacent cubes resting on non-articulated columns. In his geometries, you can see some of the effects that ultimately materialized in the building he designed for MOCA.

But by the spring of 1982, the MOCA commission was far from guaranteed. At the press conference, Isozaki displayed a boxy form that disappointed. Times design critic Sam Hall Kaplan called it “surprisingly bland”, and critic Paul Goldberger, writing for the New York Times at the time, called it “basically boring.” As those in the room began to barrage Isozaki with questions, the architect broke press conference protocol to announce that he had disapproved of the concept and had been duped by the museum construction committee, led by computer magnate Max Palevsky, to produce the concept. Moreover, he was considering resigning.

Controversy ensued, of course. Pontus Hulten, then director of MOCA, and his deputy, Richard Koshalek, also threatened to resign unless the board gave Isozaki more creative freedom. Palevsky found himself on the sidelines. But he quietly refused to go: He sued the museum for the return of his donation, claiming that he had been promised architectural control. (The lawsuit was later settled largely in the museum’s favour.)

A view from the façade of MOCA on Grand Avenue in 2019.

(Elon Schoenholz)

With Palevsky out of the way, Isozaki was free to revise his designs for MOCA. And the museum we know today emerged from this process: a 98,000-square-foot composition of red Indian sandstone, 11 pyramidal skylights, and a barrel-vaulted library supported by a pair of pilots.

It is an original building. Working around a steep hill and pre-existing structures, the architect had to go through all sorts of twists and turns to get the building working. But MOCA still served as one of Isozaki’s most important pieces of architecture.

Washington Post critic Benjamin Forgey wrote of the building: “There’s no pretension here, no superficial self-advertisement, no compulsion for effects. Instead, there’s modesty and a serene mastery of paradox: While it’s obviously new and memorable, the building seems to have been centuries old. looks like it’s here.

When Isozaki was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2019, the announcement praised MOCA’s “rhetorical awareness of scale”.

Isozaki, a unique architect whose eclectic buildings have influences from a world, died Wednesday at his home in Okinawa at the age of 91. His death was announced in a statement by his longtime collaborator Misa Shin and confirmed by a member. from his studio. The architect was actually the subject of a solo exhibition at Shin’s gallery that ended four days before his death.

British architect Peter Cook, one of the founders of the influential avant-garde group Archigram, hailed Isozaki as “ONE OF THE GREATS” in a Facebook post.

MOCA’s director, Johanna Burton, stated via email that the museum was “indelibly stamped” by Isozaki with “her groundbreaking ethos of contextual awareness, constant change, and even unrest that creates the perfect setting for dialogue around contemporary art.” Its iconic materials and spaces give the museum a clear identity, but it also gives a sense of foresight for other things to come.”

A screen print of bright color blocks shows the MOCA's pyramidal skylights jutting out of the roof.

“MOCA Series #2,” 1983 — one of the elegant depictions of Arata Isozaki’s concept for the museum.

(Arata Isozaki)

Born in Ōita on the southern island of Kyushu on July 23, 1931, Isozaki was the eldest son of a successful rice shipper who also wrote haiku poetry. While his early youth was idyllic, his teenage years were much less so. Ōita lies between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Isozaki’s formative years were spent coming to terms with the devastating wreckage of two US atomic bombs.

“I have a strong image that everything I do will always be destroyed or destroyed,” he told Times art critic William Wilson in 1991. “This image has been my hidden trauma. … I had no idea of ​​being an architect but somehow I thought, ‘We have to rebuild this ruined situation.’”

This instinct led him to continue his education at the University of Tokyo. While still a student, he went to work for renowned Modernist Kenzo Tange, who designed Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and later worked at the iconic Yoyogi National Gymnasium for the 1964 Olympics.

Isozaki supported these formative experiences by touring Japan, Europe and the USA. What emerged from these journeys was a distinctive practice that combined a number of Western traditions with Eastern traditions. For example, in his work, he was as interested in the Japanese concept of intervening space as the barrel vault, a common form in Roman architecture. mom.

In the early 60s, Isozaki founded his own firm and began working on a number of residential and commercial projects. In its early days, his designs brought a wry humor to the heavy materials of Brutalism. Completed in 1960, the Ōita Medical Hall consists of a horizontal cylinder resting on four concrete legs. The design resembles a robotic animal that Isozaki once compared to a piggy bank. Over the next decade, he designed a question-mark clubhouse for a golf course. “It was a private joke to ask why the Japanese play golf so much,” he later said.

Japanese architect Arata Isozaki in a black suit came to the Pritzker ceremony with Misa Shin in a cream suit.

Arata Isozaki, left, and Misa Shin arriving at the 2019 Pritzker ceremony in Paris.

(Ludovic Marin via Getty Images/AFP)

This was followed by a decades-long career in which the architect rarely repeated himself.

The ’80s Tsukuba Headquarters in Ibaraki combined the patterns of the Italian Renaissance with a Japanese garden. Walt Disney Co. in Orlando, Fla. for a corporate building blended the whimsical Disney color palette with a stark arrangement of contrasting geometric forms. The brutally futuristic Palau Sant Jordi, a gym designed for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, ​​referenced Catalan jumping techniques. It was also a remarkable feat of engineering: The steel frame of its roof was installed on the ground and then lifted into place within 10 days – during which time even the king of Spain showed up to check on the progress.

Isozaki once attributed the changing nature of his aesthetic to the uncertainty he experienced while coming of age in post-war Japan. “Change has been constant,” he told a reporter in 2019. “Paradoxically, this has become my own style.”

His unique style also applied to the way he carried himself: Isozaki avoided ties, opting instead for baggy suits created by his friend, fashion designer Issey Miyake. In addition to his architecture, he was a teacher and writer, producing books that explored some of its influences at length. This included “Japan in Architecture”, published in 2006, which expresses concepts that help define Japanese architecture—including discontinuity and ritual.

Isozaki took the award step by step when he received the Pritzker award at the age of 87, decades after other architects of his generation such as Fumihiko Maki had been honored. “It’s like a crown on a tombstone,” he joked to the New York Times.

An older print shows a pyramid skylight in the foreground and a barrel vault surrounded by scaffolding in the rear.

Joe Deal, “The Great Pyramid, Gallery A and Library”, 1986, showing the MOCA under construction.

(Joe Agreement / MOCA)

MOCA was at the heart of Isozaki’s success. But even after the rebellion against Palevsky, the institution did not make things easy for him.

Aside from vicious clients trying to dispel the quirks of its designs, the museum also had physical and political complications. Bunker Hill’s slopes are infamously steep, making any construction difficult. For structural reasons, Isozaki had to fit the column grid of the existing parking structure below. And many compromises have been made with the developer of California Plaza, the site where MOCA is located. The building should not be so tall that it competes with the surrounding towers and should not block the pedestrian crossing between Grand Avenue and the rest of the plaza. These conditions sent most of the museum below grade.

A long layout that would tie any architect: Design a new institution for Los Angeles, not make it so prominent that it interferes with commercial real estate interests.

Isozaki nevertheless created some notable areas within these constraints. Many critics were dissatisfied with the descent into the museum, but I find the transition from the tumult of street level to the silence of the galleries thoughtful – Isozaki integrates museum concepts. mom to a difficult site.

A very high-ceilinged gallery contains a covered skylight that is replaced by artificial lighting.

Over the years, one of the most notable effects of Isozaki’s design has been removed by covering the MOCA’s skylights.

(Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times)

Unfortunately, the unsympathetic changes did not help improve the condition of the buildings. Over the years, MOCA has painted over pyramidal skylights to prevent the sun from damaging fragile artworks. This overshadowed one of the building’s best features: the daylight that used to flood the galleries from above. The most dramatic of these was a large, ceiling-lit room on the south side that Frank Gehry once described as “worth the whole building.”

At the moment the only light there is artificial.

When Klaus Biesenbach took up his short term as director of MOCA in 2018, he embarked on a study to see what could be done to restore skylights. Numerous advances have been made in light filtering technology since the 1980s to enable galleries to be illuminated with natural light. A representative from the museum says the goal is to restore the integrity of the skylights, but there is no renovation calendar in place.

A movement worth exploring. Isozaki may be gone, but it’s never too late for MOCA to finally finish giving him the building he deserves.

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