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Arata Isozakis Kyoto Concert Hall shows L. A. what might have been at MOCA


The Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect designed L. A.’s MOCA while contending with a mountain of restrictions. His Kyoto building shows what was lost.
With not a little pomp and some multilingual speechifying, architect Arata Isozaki was awarded the 2019 Pritzker Prize at the Château de Versailles outside of Paris late last month.
As part of the ceremony, Supreme Court Justice and Pritzker juror Stephen Breyer, speaking French, delivered a missive in honor of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which recently suffered extensive damage in a fire. Afterward, Tom Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation, the organization that awards the Pritzker, presented Isozaki with the medal and citation.
“He is both an adapter and an originator,” Pritzker said. “He is an architect whose appetite for architecture is never satisfied.”
While the Okinawa-based Isozaki was jetting off to France to receive the award, I was on a train to Kyoto as part of one of The Times’ travel expeditions, this one devoted to examining the architecture of Japan. On the itinerary: a visit to Isozaki’s Kyoto Concert Hall, located in a quiet district in Japan’s former capital.
It was instructive.
Isozaki has only a handful of buildings in the United States, among them the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, completed in 1986, and his critically acclaimed Team Disney Orlando building, administration offices built in 1990 for the Walt Disney World Resort.
While his MOCA building is important — it’s the architect’s first high-profile international commission — it is also a difficult building by which to judge Isozaki’s work, since it represents a heap of design compromises.
For one, there is the site, which is extraordinarily complicated: adjacent to the steep Bunker Hill, and set over a parking structure from which the museum was forced to take its column grid. Moreover, the commercial developers who controlled California Plaza, the superblock where the museum is located, didn’t want MOCA’s structural profile interfering with the towers that inhabited the rest of the block.

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