The Imperial Villa of Katsura in the outskirts of Kyoto was built in three stages by Hichijonomiya Toshihito and his son Toshitada between 1616 and 1660 during the Edo Period.
As a country retreat for the members of Japan’s imperial family, the villa consists of a central building comprised of three shoins (study rooms) connected one another: the Old, the Middle, and the New, and is located on a raised floor. The main module which guides the composition of the spaces is the tatami-mat, and each room is obtained by the multiplication of the basic dimension of this element which also provides the floor cover. The structural components are made from Japanese cedar wood (hinoki) and the partitions are obtained through wooden doors and paper-covered screens fixed or sliding (shoji and fusuma) which help to create different arrangements of the spaces.
The building sprawls following an irregular pattern and merging with the surrounding garden, which also includes a pond and three islands, to generate an indissoluble unity of interior and exterior rooms. A meandering path crosses the garden, and connects the main building and the five tea houses, (the rooms where the traditional Tea ceremony was performed), closely together. The framing of specific views of the landscape is continuously obtained, while several exterior sliding partitions enhance this visual connection. The presence of the garden dominates the interior; porches and the wooden decks sliding on the landscape provide a further link between inside and outside spaces.
The villa was visited and praised by several modern master architects such as Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius and Frank Loyd Wright who wrote extensively on the modernity of the building which integrates modularity, flexibility, and transparency in its conception.
The traditional house is so strikingly modern because it contains perfect solutions, already centuries old, for problems which the contemporary Western architect is still wrestling with today; complete flexibility of movable exterior and interior walls, changeability, and multi-use of spaces, modular coordination of all the building parts, and prefabrication.
Japanese Photographer Ishimoto Yasuhiro visited the Katsura Imperial Villa in 1953 in order to escort MoMA’s design curator for his research on Japanese traditional architecture for a forthcoming exhibition, after being asked by Edward Steichen, then photography curator of the MoMA. Ishimoto, as a young graduate of Chicago’s Institute of Design (where lessons in American photography were merged with Bauhaus design theory), immediately recognized Katsura as a modern subject and took this seminal series of photographs.
To further know about Yasuhiro’s photography, please read this interesting Aperture’s post written by Russet Lederman.
Katsura Imperial Villa
EL LÍMITE DIFUSO Tectónica del límite en Toyo Ito 1971-2001. Thesis by Ignacio García Martínez | TFM
Aesthetics of Japan, by Dennis Simanaitis
Katsura Imperial Villa: A Brief Descriptive Bibliography, with Illustrations, by Dana Buntrock, University of California, Berkeley
On Ishimoto Yasuhiro: Russet Lederman on Aperture
More photographs (by Kosuko Inoue)