Despite being 71-years-old and a career that spans 40 years, there is little recognizable signature style to the work of Japanese architect Toyo Ito. Unlike, say, the fluid lines of a Zaha Hadid building or the explosive energy of a Frank Gehry structure, a Toyo Ito design is characterised not by a personal preferences for aesthetics but instead by his continued strive for innovation. After years of being overlooked for the most prestigious architectural award, that pioneering spirit has finally earned him the Pritzker Prize. “Toyo Ito is a creator of timeless buildings, who at the same time boldly charts new paths,” the Pritzker jury said in its citation published this week. “His architecture projects an air of optimism, lightness and joy and is infused with both a sense of uniqueness and universality.”

Joining a long list of starchitects – including the aforementioned Gehry and Hadid – who have been awarded the Pritzker Prize, Ito was selected for groundbreaking structures such as the 2004 Tod’s Omotesando building in Tokyo (“where the building skin also serves as the structure,” noted the jury), the 2006 Municipal Funderal Hall in Gifu Prefecture (an “inspiring space”) and his small communal spaces built for those affected by the 2011 earthquake in Japan (“a direct expression of his sense of social responsibility”).

If there is one building that defines the non-style of Ito, it is the Sendai Mediatheque completed in 2001 in Sendai City, Miyagi, Japan. Designed to withstand an earthquake, it was tested when it survived Japan’s 2011 natural disaster and was subsequently given a Golden Lion Award at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

“I feel that before the Mediatheque project, many of my projects could have not been realized,” says Ito of its significance. Citing its influence on later projects including the Taichung Opera House and the Library in Gifu, he continues: “I believe that the elements of the Sendai Mediatheque will continue to evolve in the future.”

Always thoughtful in his response to a brief, Ito is rare in that he carefully considers the spiritual dimension of a building in his response. The resulting bold designs come from a surprisingly simple philosophy. On his role, Ito says: “An architect is someone who can make such places for meager meals show a little more humanity, make them a little more beautiful, a little more comfortable.”