Isozaki analyses Isozaki

Critical reflection and the architectural monograph seldom lead a happy coexistence The publication about and by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki is an exception to the rule.

Monographs are usually rather one-sided affairs full of obligatory glossy photos, plans, and texts that read like advertisements. The reasons are easy to guess: big egos generally aren’t into self-criticism – at least not in public – and publishing a monograph isn’t a profit-making endeavour, which means the office in question usually funds the book in part. In short, critical reflection and the architectural monograph do not make for a happy marriage.

The publication about and by Arata Isozaki is, thankfully, an exception to the rule: it is a genuine feat of strength, a book that makes you reflect. Naturally, Isozaki has attempted to compile the ultimate book about his work. The project presentations would have benefited from more drawings – nice big sections for example – and more critical descriptions. Yet the structure of the book and the content of the essays makes purchasing it more than worth it.
First, the original lay-out. Instead of the customary chronological survey, the book is divided into themes that Isozaki says guide his creativity: process, genesis, atlas, trans, isle, and flux. The buildings that are discussed in the thematic essays and that best express these ideas are then extensively illustrated. Because it is so personal and arbitrary, such an approach can be viewed with some scepticism. The stylistic and intellectual development of Isozaki, for example, is more difficult to follow. The suggestion is made that the six themes have always played a role in his work and that his oeuvre has evolved in one smooth movement. The truth, as a thorough reading of the text reveals, is more exciting. Isozaki’s creative process is marked by personal crises and a deep analysis of the underlying forces that have shaped Eastern and Western society in the second  half of the twentieth century.
For example, Isozaki witnessed the complete and random destruction of Japanese cities by advanced technological warfare. In this sense it is of course logical that  Isozaki in the end couldn’t continue to endorse positivism – the so-called progressive ideal that formed the basis of the Modern Movement. He acutely noted that modernism was unable to formulate an answer to the tumultuous changes that took place in post-war Japan and adopted the position that the only alternative was “to observe the actual state of affairs with my naked eyes”.

Although the post-modern answer he formulated is just as easily in need of a revision – I’m much more charmed by the earlier, raw and ‘modernist’ projects – the book is ultimately at its best in these deep and clear philosophical reflections. Of course there are no equivocal or easy answers given – the text is far too layered and complex for that – but the discussion does make it a difficult book to put down. Just a pity about those glossy photos.