Prtizker Architecture Prize for 2024 to Riken Yamamoto of Japan

As it has annually since 1979, this international honor goes to a living architect – or partners in a firm — whose work has made “significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.” Supported by the Pritzker family of Chicago, the honor has long been seen worldwide as design’s nearest equivalent to the Nobel Prize.   

Born in 1945 in Beijing, China, Yamamoto soon moved back to Japan with his family. He initially hoped to pursue a career in engineering, his father’s profession, but realized quite young that architecture would be his chosen field. He graduated from Nihon University in 1968 and earned a master’s in art in architecture from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1971. In the following years he undertook extensive travel, visiting eight countries surrounding the Mediterranean, making a trip through several countries from the United States to Peru, and spending some time as well in Iraq, India, and Nepal. 

Yokosuka Museum of Art, photo courtesy of Tomio Ohashi

Throughout his long and productive career, the 78-year-old has purposefully undertaken commissions ranging in scale from single-family houses to extensive residential developments, in building type from university campuses to museums to a municipal fire station. Whatever the type or scale of his work he has been intent on reinforcing the relationship of the individual to the community. As the Pritzker news release puts it, “He activates the threshold between public and private lives, achieving social value with every project.” 

While some noted architects are known for daring structures that amount to urban-scaled sculpture, Yamamoto usually designs his works as assemblages of spatial-structural modules, subtly varied and meticulously placed. Views into and out of interiors are designed to encourage social awareness and contact – “a sense of belonging.” 

Riken Yamamoto, photo courtesy of Tom Welsh

The award ceremony will be held at Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Center, on May 16th. It will be open to the public in-person and online. 

Yamakawa Villa, photo courtesy of Tomio Ohashi
Yamakawa Villa, photo courtesy of Tomio Ohashi

Yamakawa Villa, Nagano, Japan, 1977 

The earliest completed work by Yamamoto is a summer house nestled into the woods. A moss-covered gabled roof shelters open-air living spaces. Enclosed volumes under this canopy contain sleeping quarters and kitchen. 

Saitama Prefectural University, photo courtesy of Riken Yamamoto & Field Shop

Saitama Prefectural University, Koshigaya, Japan, 1999 

The campus Yamamoto designed for this school, specializing in nursing and health sciences, is composed of nine buildings connected by terraces and walkways. The transparent volumes of its buildings allow views from one classroom to another, as well as from building to building, encouraging interdisciplinary learning. 

Hiroshima Nishi Fire Station, photo courtesy of Tomio Ohashi
Hiroshima Nishi Fire Station, photo courtesy of Tomio Ohash

Hiroshima Fire Station, Hiroshima, Japan, 2000 

This fire station appears totally transparent, with a glass louvered exterior and glass walls throughout the interior. Visitors in a central atrium may witness the training activities of the firefighters, and they’re encouraged to become acquainted with these civil servants in designated public areas of the building. 

Yokosuka Museum of Art, photo courtesy of Tomio Ohashi
Yokosuka Museum of Art, photo courtesy of Tomio Ohashi

Museum of Art, Yokosuka, Japan, 2006 

Yamamoto’s primary concern for user experience is exemplified in this museum. It is designed both as a destination for travelers and a daily place of relief for locals. The curvilinear entrance path relates the museum to views of Tokyo Bay and nearby mountains, and the galleries are at lower levels for minimum disruption of that panorama. From these galleries, views of the landscape and other galleries may be enjoyed through round cutouts in the walls. Visitors can thus be impressed not only with artworks, but with the activities of others there. 

Pangyo Housing, photo courtesy of Kouichi Satake

Pongyo Housing, Seongnam, Republic of Korea, 2010 

A complex of nine low-rise housing blocks has transparent ground-floor volumes that support interconnectedness among neighbors. Second-floor communal decks encourage interaction, with playgrounds, gardens, and spaces for gathering, and bridges connect the housing blocks. 

Tianjin Library, photo courtesy of Riken Yamamoto & Field Shop
Tianjin Library, photo courtesy of Nacasa & Partners

Tianjin Library, Tianjin City, China, 2012 

A provincial library, one of the architect’s projects in China, contains six million books in a structure of 590,000 square feet – “a size that is inconceivable in Japan”, says Yamamoto. Among its key features is a giant entrance hall accessible from both sides of the building, crisscrossing interior levels, and a façade of stone louvers to protect its exterior glass from dust storms. 

THE CIRCLE at Zürich Airport, photo courtesy of Flughafen Zürich AG

The Circle at Zurich Airport, 2020 

The Circle at Zurich Airport, built to Yamamoto’s competition-winning design, is a structure with about 1.9 million square feet of space occupied by medical facilities, shops, restaurants, offices, and two hotels .The complex is shaped by busy roadways confining it on one side. On the opposite side, its interiors overlook a contrasting landscaped acreage of roughly circular configuration. Gaps in the continuity of the building’s volume allow daylight to enter the Circle where appropriate.

Previous Pritzker winners from Japan 

With winners of the Pritzker Prize in eight of the program’s 47 years, Japan is now tied for first place with the United States. Many of the Japanese winners to date have designed notable buildings in the United States. Listed here are these architects – with the year of their honors and some of their U.S. works. 

Kenzo Tange, 1987: Addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, 1974. 

Fumihiko Maki, 1983: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 1993; Kemper Art Museum, 2006 (and other buildings) at Washington University, St. Louis; MIT Media Lab Extension, Cambridge, MA, 2009; 4 World Trade Center office building, New York, 2013.  

Tadao Ando, 1995: Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis, 2001; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2002; buildings at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 2008 and 2014. 

Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, 2010: Glass Museum, Toledo, Ohio, 2006; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 2007; Grace Farms cultural center, New Canaan, CT, 2015. 

Toyo Ito, 2013: Many works worldwide, but none in United States. 

Shigeru Ban, 2014: Metal Shutter House (apartment building) New York (2010) 

Arata Isozaki, 2019: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1986. 

U.S. winners of this prize have been: Philip Johnson, 1979; Kevin Roche, 1982; I.M. Pei, 1983; Richard Meier, 1984; Gordon Bunshaft, 1988; Frank Gehry, 1989; Robert Venturi, 1991; Thom Mayne, 2005.  

The Jury 

This year’s Pritzker Prize jury includes: Alejandro Aravena of Chile, jury chair, and 2016 Prtizker Prize winner: Barry Bergdoll of New York, professor of art history and archeology at Columbia University and former curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art; Deborah Burke, architect and Dean of the Yale School of Architecture; Stephen Breyer, US Supreme Court Justice (retired); André Aranha Corréa do Lago of Brazil, architecture critic and exhibition curator; Kazuyo Sejima, architect and 2010 Pritzker Prize winner; Wang Shu, architect, Dean of Architecture at China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, and 2012 Pritzker Prize winner.