Architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, partners at renowned Japanese practice SANAA, have won the coveted 2010 Pritzker prize, architecture’s highest honour.

It is only the third time in the award’s 31-year history that the prize has been awarded to two architects - Oscar Niemeyer and Gordon Bunshaft received the accolade in 1988 while Swiss pair Herzog and de Meuron were the recipients in 2001.

The jury citation commended the pair’s ability to “explore like few others the phenomenal properties of continuous space, lightness, transparency and materiality to create a subtle synthesis,” and stated that “Sejima and Nishizawa’s architecture stands in direct contrast with the bombastic and rhetorical. Instead, they seek the essential qualities of architecture that result in a much appreciated straightforwardness, economy of means and restraint in their work.”

Reacting to the accolade, Nishizawa said: “Every time I finish a building I revel in possibilities and at the same time reflect on what has happened. Each project becomes my motivation for the next new project. In the same way this wonderful prize has given me a dynamic energy that I have never felt before. I have been exploring how I can make architecture that feels open, which I feel is important for a new generation of architecture.”

Although most of their projects have been concentrated in Japan, the pair has received worldwide critical success for their highly sculptural and conceptual work since they formed their practice in 1995. Their acclaimed New Museum in New York was highlighted by the jury as well as the Nagano O-Museum and the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, both in Japan. In Europe, they are currently designing a 300,000 square-foot branch of the Louvre in Lens, France and they also completed last year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Hyde Park.

The prize of $100,000 and a bronze medal will be awarded at a lavish ceremony in New York on 17 May. Legendary architects such as Jørn Utzon and Frank Gehry (designers of the Sydney Opera House and Bilbao Guggenheim respectively) have received the accolade in the past and previous British winners include Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and James Stirling.