The long poem, Photos of Katsura began life as a descriptive exercise. The poem attempted to capture in words what I saw second hand through the photographs in a book. It grew over the months of its writing into a speculative story of the villa’s creation. 17th Century Japan is a long way from today, yet what was evolving in that culture was a singular epoch in the history of architecture and fine arts that still can stir our attention.
Contingency, as Jay Gould defines it,  played its usual role–seems the whole of my life is thus blessed (or cursed depending on the day.) First staring at the cover photograph of an architectural journal–what was this? Certainly not a recent architectural work, and yet the narrow stone way framed tightly by wood and bamboo walls was as exquisitely detailed as though it were. It was an intellectual masterpiece, both the subject and the photograph. Turning pages to learn the photo accompanied a book review of all things–in a journal better known for pictures of corporate headquarters and out-scaled modern mansions. In this case it was a review of Katsura Imperial Villa,  though it was the photograph that caught my eye. I bought the book and spent evenings turning pages of beautiful photographs taken of one more in a long list of places in Kyoto I wanted to visit. And reading Arata Isozaki’s scholarly essay which corrects some of the villa’s history in the context of Japanese architectural history. As a final treat, the HABS-quality restoration drawings.
The photographs by Yoshiharu Matsumura of the villa, its strolling gardens and tea houses are evidence of a philosophy of simplicity in beauty, quietly declaring that art is the highest expression of a philosopher’s life.
Perhaps nobles in the imperial family had time on their hands during the Shogunate, since they no longer ruled. Also true, in feudal times (as in medieval Europe) the wealthy noblemen had the luxury of time that commoners did not. The analogies to current day are obvious, however with one difference–we do not seem to be living in an epoch of fine art, music and literature. Today’s self-absorption leaves little oxygen for anything beyond our small passions.
Bruno Taut’s early writings from the 30s (along with those of Walter Gropius and Kenzō Tange) made it seem that the villa’s repeated geometries represented an ancient Eastern version of Western Modernism. I would say rather that early modern Japanese architects were drawn to Western Modernism, recognizing the connection to their own culture’s past.
In the photographs, proportioned by tatamis, the rooms are stark and empty, as in a museum, and the notion came to me that perhaps the villa was waiting for its owners to return. This was, after all, a country house, miles from the formal Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Tatamis are roughly 3x6, or 1:2 proportioned to the human body. Rooms in the villa are described as the six-tatami room or the eight-tatami room, instead of being named by use (except for the Hearth Room). Was it because a result of an attitude of flexible space, as the Modernists might argue or simply that their uses changed over time as the villa grew? Taut, Gropius, Tange, et al. wanted badly to believe the former.
In Arata Isozaki’s essay,  he argues there is no solid evidence of who the building’s designers were. And he makes clear that the term ‘architect’ in any case is misapplied since the profession as defined in Western countries didn’t exist in Japan until the 20th Century. He does stress that the ‘retro’ style of the villa itself was imitative of peasant farmhouses, albeit more finely dressed, an in-vogue style among the upper class.
So the question becomes: is the casual asymmetry of Katsura intentional, a literal copy, or a clever borrowing? The history of art and architecture is replete with examples of returns to more simple times for inspiration. The Arts and Crafts movement is an obvious Western example–which of course has elements of Japanese influence, a Gordian design knot we’ll leave alone.
Isozaki gives only that the Katsura Villa was done “Enshugonomi” or “in Enshu’s taste,” Kobori Enshu being acknowledged as an influential garden designer and tea master in the Edo Period. Both garden design and the tea ceremony were fruits of Zen Buddhism as they practiced it. Whether these artistic expressions were deeper reflections of the larger population, or only that of an elevated nobility is a point of curiosity that’s taken up in the poem.
And did respect for Enshu’s design tastes extend to architectural influence beyond the tea house, or elevate him to the status of nobility—those are questions. Whatever influence he had over Prince Toshihito’s country villa, I could also argue the reverse, mainly that Toshihito created his master work in what later was referred to as being ‘in Enshu’s taste.’ Isozaki points out that the initial building at Katsura was begun before Enshu became famous, so it’s hard to believe he was involved–at least in its original creation. The reason for babbling about this is to say that it gave me an idea for the poem.
The Katsura area is named for the Katsura River. The villa’s gardens draw water from the river to supply its wending streams and ponds. What stood out when we visited Katsura was how surrounded the compound seemed by the relentless modern development. Waiting for the time of our visit, we sat near the Katsura River in the vicinity of a playing field. I found it hard to imagine the 17th Century version of this countryside, yet a half mile away was the gravel way leading to Katsura Villa. [LInks to Google street views of Katsura neighborhood]
Since the Villa’s final form wasn’t completed until Toshihito’s son took it on, the stepping façade fronting on the ponds and gardens probably wasn’t something Toshihito himself might have envisioned. But aside from the wonderful asymmetry, equally advantageous is the way each addition steps back from its predecessor, allowing the earlier portion its all-important light and views–and to remain an independent element in the overall composition: Old Shoin, Middle Shoin, Music Pavilion and New Goten.
The original Old Shoin takes pride of place, and is easily the most visible from the gardens, with the Moon-Viewing Porch reaching forward toward the pond. Backed off by the depth of the Old Shoin, is the Middle Shoin, with the former’s wrapping verandah changing to an enclosed porch employing Shoji screens, with the sunlight now filtered. The Music Room uses the same stepping strategy. Each of the four ‘steps’ is of a similar scale. This coupled with the rhythms of shoji, repeated textures of wood, ties together the composition.
Renaissance buildings compose themselves around symmetry and repeated stone and window patterns. By contrast, the ‘flying geese’ formation introduces movement and perspective, elements that Renaissance artists understood, but architects of the day rarely used.
When I began studying my own house renovation, my instinct was to avoid a direct extension, moving toward the water, reasoning it would result in the main rooms of the house being blocked by the addition. View of the water was the obvious goal, but whatever advantages of view, light and air thus created for the addition would remove the same from the existing living, dining and kitchen spaces. And since the addition was to increase these spaces on the second floor, it would likewise block the lower level family room–the best room in the original house. Intuitively, stepping sideways and forward seemed to eliminate the worst of this, however the property’s diagonal water frontage cut across the same area, restricting the addition’s size. Given the original house placement, I couldn’t step back following the diagonal property line, but was forced to step against it.
I can’t claim the project was a total success, since the addition stands much taller than the original house. I could argue that the vertical stands in contrast to the horizontal (yadda, yadda, yadda), but that was only the result, not its purpose: the added height allows for clerestory light to reach from above, down past the loft to the living room below. When the winter sun is low in the morning, it pours into that space, and I’m content with the reasoning.
Photos of Katsura
The poem begins by describing a home empty of its occupants, much as the book’s photographs depict it, suggesting that it’s awaiting the arrival of its residents for the season–pure speculation that the poem continues. In truth, the emptiness in the photos is poignant. The poem’s story begins with Toshihito’s boyhood friendships with artisans of Kyoto, and one in particular with Kobori Masakazu–later known as Kobori Enshu.
What little is known about Toshihito is that he turned in reaction from the samurai, as the warrior class was the Shogunate’s support. In that the Shogunate had replaced the Emperor’s power, it seems reasonable to expect a brother to the Emperor (and uncle to his son, the next Emperor) would turn from the samurai. In that the aristocrats were encouraged by the Shogunate to pursue art and philosophy, ceding all political power, “the culture of the Kyoto nobility was pushed toward fictional elaboration” of mountain life. “Katsura is the epitome of this tendency: separate and distinct from the main house in Kyoto City, the second house was totally dedicated to the production of the fictive life” meaning pursuit of an artisan’s simpler life.
“The historian, Tatsusaburo Hayashiya’s influential writings on the culture of the Kanei ere (1624-1644)… paid utmost attention to the fact that the design of a famous townhouse, Sumiya (Corner House), in the red light district of Kyoto was similar to that of the teahouses at Katsura.”
The jolly Buddha himself was laughing, and with those suggested bits of history, the poem’s story was spun.
 Glorious Contingency by Michael Shermer is worth reading as an introduction to the subject. Or for a fuller treatment, read Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History which will pay you back in spades for the time you spend on it. “I am not speaking of randomness, but of the central principle of all history—contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before—the unerasable and determining signature of history.”
 Photos of Katsura was inspired by Katsura Imperial Villa, 2005, Virginia Ponciroli, Editor, published by Electa Architecture, with an extended essay by Arata Isozaki, a Japanese modernist architect of the first order.
 The Diagonal Strategy: Katsura as Envisioned by “Enshu’s Taste” by Arata Isozaki
 Quotes taken from The Diagonal Strategy: Katsura as Envisioned by “Enshu’s Taste” by Arata Isozaki