Modest in demeanor, and wearing a black robe that he described as the traditional garb of a Japanese man of letters, Arata Isozaki, at 87, was dwarfed by the vast arched spaces of L’Orangerie at the Palace of Versailles, where he received the Pritzker Prize last Friday. But, as he reminded the 370 guests at the ceremony and dinner, including a number of French and Japanese officials, he is no newcomer to the pomp that follows the prize around the globe. More than 40 years ago, Isozaki was part of a group of architects assembled by hotel magnate Jay Pritzker (whom he called “a modern Medici”) to help plan what would become one of the great honors in the architecture world. He also served as a member of the jury in the prize’s early years. Then, after leaving the jury, he watched as the award went not only to his mentor Kenzo Tange and his contemporary Fumihiko Maki but then to his juniors in Japan—Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, and Shigeru Ban. If one word could be heard echoing through L’Orangerie on Friday, it was “overdue.”
Isozaki, a widower who now works out of his home in Okinawa, was accompanied to Versailles by his companion, gallery owner Misa Shin. Among the clients he thanked while accepting the award were the Aga Khan, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, and Michael Eisner, the former head of Disney. And he was whisked to the event—with a police escort—from the Élysée Palace in Paris, where he was honored by President Emmanuel Macron. Celebrating at Versailles were 12 past Pritzker winners: Sejima, in a pale green kimono, along with Nishizawa; Jean Nouvel, Christian de Portzamparc, Renzo Piano, and Shigeru Ban (all of whom have offices in Paris); as well as Rem Koolhaas, Wang Shu, Rafael Moneo, and Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta (of the firm RCR). There may also have been a future laureate or two in the crowd that included Jeanne Gang, Elizabeth Diller, Sou Fujimoto, Bernard Tschumi, Toshiko Mori, Odile Decq, Kunlé Adeyemi, and Dominique Jakob and Brendan MacFarlane (of Jakob + MacFarlane).
Hanging over the ceremony at L’Orangerie was the recent devastation of Notre Dame. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, the current chair of the Pritzker jury, gave a speech, much of it in French, in which he recalled watching the cathedral burn on television, and realizing “how fragile what we create really is.” He praised the spirit of architects to “get back to work and rebuild when everything seems lost.”
Tom Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation, which administers the prize, spoke of Isozaki’s childhood in a Japan decimated by war, especially the effect of the bombing of Hiroshima, not far from his home. “His first experience of architecture was the absence of architecture,” which, Pritzker said, led him to strive to fill the void. He called Isozaki “a symbol of resilience” before placing the Pritzker medal around the architect’s neck and posing with him for photos. Then he returned to the microphone to say, “There’s also a check. Some years, I forget to give the check to the laureate—I can’t decide if it’s Freudian or just forgetfulness.” But Pritzker did remember the $100,000 check—and most important, the jury remembered to give the prize to Isozaki.