Journal

This time let’s talk about the book: Katsura. Imperial Villa published by Electa in 2015; edited by Virginia Ponciroli, with texts by Arata Isozaki, Manfred Speidel, Bruno Taut, Walter Gropious, Kenzo Tange and Francesco Dal Co. Photographs by Matsumura Yoshiharu. Book recommended in the academic context to fully understand the best of Japanese architecture: its spatial quality and the different values, very different from the western model. It costs 100 euros, but thanks to some online outlets I found it for half the price, so keep an eye out. The villa in question is a complex built starting from the seventeenth century. in the surroundings of Kyoto, and consists of a private residence divided into several volumes, outdoor pavilions and a well-studied private park.

two parallel projects

The book presents the villa complex under two different interpretations, the essay and the iconographic one. The two instruments remain completely parallel, without one really referring to the other, as if they had been designed out independently and then united for the occasion. The structure is indeed: opening of Ponciroli, 30 pag. of Isozaki’s essay, 250 p. of visual works, and 70 p. of closing essays. It is not a defect, but it is certainly less easy to read and go back and forth in these pages to go and understand what you are talking about. Evidently, it was not the intention of the editorial project, which preferred to reward the individualist voice of the various authors, leaving them completely independent.

the iconographic section

The body of the book is therefore constituted by the visual apparatus. At the beginning of each new “chapter” (eg ancient shoin, or outdoor garden theme, etc.) there is a double page with a legend, plan of the entire garden and architectural plan of the main volumes. It is repeated several times with no variation, except a bold type of the number of rooms that will be reported and a white text in legend. Beautiful yes, but the repetition is completely superfluous and redundant, nor is the subtle graphic change useful for understanding the view of the photos.

The photographs are undoubtedly the best part of the whole volume, with a very high quality and beauty. Simply with them and following the plan, it is possible to imagine the experience of the villa as if you were there personally. Few views have not been taken, and I can assume they were the least valid or rich in information, but almost all the architecture can be viewed in one’s mind thanks to the quantity and quality of the shots.
The external apparatus was slightly less clear to me, perhaps because it was more complex and dispersive, and it would have been useful to have many and many more photos.

Precisely because I tried to understand and visualize the entire space, without passively leafing through or dwelling on a single photo, I noticed the lack of a “guide” to understand the point of the view of the photos. The portrayed spaces are always unique, but at the same time very similar to each other and not recognizable at a glance in plan, and to orient myself I had to sketch by hand, on each double facade, or 4, synthetic diagrams to understand the point of sight.

At the end of the series of photos, there are many technical drawings such as plans, elevations and official sections, provided directly by the Tokyo Household Agency. Important, even if my favorite tools are the photos.

the essays

The essays in this book, all made up of big names that are also attractive on the cover, are quite different from each other. It was interesting to see the different approaches, even though many themes were repeated several times.

The first, by Isozaki, is also the one that acts as a true interpretative guide, because it not only reconstructs the story of Katsura and the compositional principles (as well as other essays will do), but with contemporary eyes it can reconstruct the cultural debate that this villa has sparked, in the last century and how this has been erroneously reread over the years. In fact, the complex was not realized by the hand of a single author or a single vision, but it is the lucky result of very different influences on which it is still difficult to get to grips with it even today. However, initially, instead of embracing its complexity, several intellectuals promoted only those aspects that suited their own idea of architecture.

Only in this way was it possible to frame with the right distance the essay by Gropius who read Katsura from the point of view of a rational, alpine architecture. This essay in parentheses was my favorite, because the most pleasant to read, more sensorial and immersed in Japanese images and atmospheres. Less ideological contortions, here.

Ditto for the essay by Kenzo Tange, who instead drew more from history to reconstruct the origin of the artistic impulses that governed Japan.

we have never learned the importance of the economy in material and spiritual things as we belong to a civilization that produces a disordered abundance of forms and structures.
(…) Despite the poverty of the countryside, the peasant houses are extraordinarily beautiful and solid. (…) In the small and neat villages you never see dirt, neglected farms, unrepaired roofs or unhealthy dumps.

Walter Gropius

two conclusions not only to conclude

Beautiful, particular and which certainly made me grow more aware of Japanese architecture – I also hope to have absorbed some of its beauty even unconsciously.

And even if I traveled to Tokyo, and in the aforementioned Nikko (which I adored, and in this text there are not nice words for it!) I often wondered what kind of reference should I know, to understand the difference Katsura made to the tradition; why and what it broke, why its creativity is so different. I understood and I did not, also based on how much support I was given to understand.

I believe that a Western reader, as much as he may be a lover of Japan as I am, unless he is really a great connoisseur of it, can still struggle to understand the gap that Katsura has created. I want to apologize to who managed the book project, for all the ifs and buts found in this text and for the advice I am going to give: it would be nice to add a chapter or recommend a book, or give any tool that can help to have further meters of comparison.

In fact, closing the book I perceived a void, the void of non-knowledge that I have about the Japanese production.

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