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  • John Barr

Katsura Imperial Villa (All Things to All Men)

I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Corinthians 9.19

In the 20th century Katsura Imperial Villa became a kind of touchstone for the essence of Japanese architecture. Bruno Taut’s claim that Katsura was the archetype of Japaneseness rendered its pre-eminent position unquestionable and unquestioned. Given that Taut made his pronouncements on the supremacy of Katsura shortly after arriving in Japan for the first time it is difficult to see how he could have amassed the evidence for such a claim and it seems likely that he was catering to the imperatives of his hosts and their political agenda. The tactic of citing Katsura to support a given point of view was subsequently adopted by others who sought to use Katsura’s now unassailable position to bolster their own architectural agendas. As those agendas varied, so Katsura was called upon to support a number of different views, becoming over time all things to all men or, at least, to all men (and they were all men) who had a point to prove about Japanese architecture…


Katsura Imperial Villa is located in the western suburbs of Kyoto and sits within extensive gardens that contain a number of smaller structures that were developed as teahouses or viewing points. The main villa was developed in three parts over time. The original part (the Ko-shoin) was built by Prince Toshihito of the Hachijo Imperial Family in the early part of the 17th century and completed in 1615. After Toshihito’s death the villa lay unoccupied for a number of years and fell into disrepair until it was taken over by his son Toshitada, who restored the original villa and added two new parts (the Chu-shoin and the Shin-goten) along with several smaller structures placed around the gardens, which he also restored and altered. This work was completed around 1662 and the results are largely what can be seen today.

Katsura main villa. In chronological order: Ko-shoin to right of shot, Chu-shoin in centre and Shin-goten to left.


There has been much debate over the authorship of Katsura’s design, coming as it does from a time when the modern idea of an architect was not a concept that would have been recognised in Japan. The name most frequently mentioned is Kobori Enshu (1579-1647) and Taut repeatedly named Enshu as the designer of Katsura. Even today some reference sources name Enshu as the designer of Katsura, but it is now generally accepted that Enshu had no direct involvement in the design or development of either the garden or the buildings, although both are acknowledged as being Enshu-gonomi (In the Style of Enshu or Exhibiting the Taste of Enshu). It is this idea of konomi (style or taste) that can cause confusion when it comes to attribution of authorship.

Enshu was one of the great tea masters, coming shortly after Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591). Rikyu was probably the most influential of tea masters and certainly the best known to most Japanese today. He is credited with redefining the tea ceremony and raising it to an art form. He was instrumental in codifying the rules of procedure and in specifying the forms and styles of utensils, architecture and gardens that, even today, define our image of the Japanese tea ceremony, even though other schools with alternative procedures and styles exist.

Rikyu’s pronouncements on these issues became known as Rikyu-gonomi (Rikyu-style or Rikyu-taste) which, at its core, reflects the philosophy of wabi. Wabi-cha (tea ceremony based on the philosophy of wabi) was not created by Rikyu but he did much to codify and popularise it. Wabi and its frequent companion, sabi, can be slippery concepts to grasp. Both involve the idea of quiet restraint (as opposed to ostentation) with wabi carrying overtones of a humble and plain way of living.

Richard Bullen1 has argued that wabi carries a moral as well as aesthetic dimension and he quotes the eighteenth century text on tea, Zencharoku:

Wabi means that even in straightened circumstances no thought of hardship arises. Even amid insufficiency, you are moved by no feeling of want. Even when faced with failure, you do not brood over injustice. If you find being in straightened circumstances to be confining, if you lament insufficiency as privation, if you complain that things have been ill-disposed – this is not wabi. Then you are indeed destitute.2

Rikyu might be said to have exhibited the ultimate wabi spirit when he obeyed Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s instruction to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). According to Kakuzo Okakura in The Book of Tea 3, Rikyu performed an elegant tea ceremony before calmly disembowelling himself and dying with a smile on his face. One has to be sceptical of such accounts, which are symptomatic of the fact that Rikyu and Katsura have both been mythologised to the point where they are removed from their own time and space. They have become untethered resources, to be used in the justification of a particular view of Japan-ness.

An untethered resource. Katsura main villa photographed from an angle that promotes a particular view of Japan-ness.

For the purposes of this discussion, the critical aspect in all of this is the concept of konomi (taste or style) that is attributed to an individual master and takes on an authority of its own, independent of its original source. Thus Rikyu-gonomi became an approach to life and aesthetics that, once established, could be applied by anyone, independent of any direct input from Rikyu himself. Rikyu-gonomi favoured the (sophisticated and tasteful) expression of the humble, the plain, the self-effacing, and the calm acceptance, even celebration, of impoverished circumstances.* Similarly Enshu-gonomi, the attributes of which we will come to later, developed its own authority, independent of Enshu himself.

* This celebration of impoverished circumstances was enjoyed by those who were very far from actual poverty and who could indulge themselves the luxury of its sophisticated and tasteful expression.

In his paper An Architecture Tradition / A Craftsman’s Tradition : The Craftsman’s Role in Japanese Architecture, Stanley Russell puts the case that Japanese architecture was developed by master craftsmen continuously refining the possibilities of their material and that, if Katsura represents the pinnacle of anything, it is the pinnacle of this tradition.

The narrative of modernist architecture scholars since the western fascination with Japanese archi­tecture started in the early 20th century shaped our understanding of it in a way that has overlooked its most important component. Another look at Kat­sura Detached Palace, the building chosen by early western scholars to serve as a model for modern architecture, helps to illustrate how the role of the craftsman was overlooked in favor of a self serving formalistic interpretation that shapes our under­standing of Japanese Architecture to this day.4

Russell’s point is well made and is undoubtedly true but the significant input of the craftsmen to Japanese building design did not exist in a vacuum and must be overlaid with other forces that were at work, particularly in the construction of major buildings for the Imperial Court or the Shogunate. These were clients who wanted to appear knowledgeable and refined in arts and culture and, during the period in which Katsura was constructed, they mostly took their lead in such matters from the tea masters, notably from Rikyu and, later, Enshu. Whilst these tea masters could have achieved nothing without the skills and the accumulated back-catalogue of the craftsmen, the craftsmen were required to use their talents to realise the konomi (the style) of the tea master.

Under these circumstances, we can see how the issue of authorship can become fuzzy. Enshu had direct overall responsibility for the design and construction of a number of buildings and gardens, which is not to say that he personally produced the designs but that he ensured that the designs were in accordance with Enshu-gonomi, i.e. in accordance with his taste and aesthetic judgement. These examples are often described as being ‘designed’ by Enshu. However, it is now generally agreed that Enshu was not part of the team that designed and built Katsura, even in a supervisory role (the dates alone would preclude him from being involved in the construction of the later parts, which were completed in 1662, fifteen years after his death). But, if Katsura is based on Enshu-gonomi, if its entire design sensibility and all design decisions are based on the codified aesthetic judgement of Enshu as enshrined in Enshu-gonomi, can we then say that, at some level, Enshu is responsible for the outcome?

Enshu-gonomi: Konchi-in, Kyoto. An example of building and garden design supervised by Enshu.


Enshu was the well-born son of a feudal lord. He was well-connected to both the Shogunate and the Imperial Court and was charged with supervision of the design and construction of a number of buildings and gardens for both. Accomplished in a number of arts he is best known as a master of the tea ceremony, which he studied under Furuta Oribe, who in turn studied under Sen-no Rikyu. As described above, Rikyu is credited with the full realisation of wabi-cha, which rejected the highly sophisticated tea ceremony that had been practised previously (for example the use of exquisitely perfect ceramic bowls from China) in favour of a humbler style. Oribe adopted a similar approach, promoting a style of ceramic bowl that was simple and rustic, with irregular shape, heavy glaze and soft colour. Flaws were admitted, even desired, and Oribe is credited with introducing the idea of the aesthetics of imperfection into Japanese culture. (See previous post, Two Houses : Part 2 and Takamitsu Azuma’s promotion of ‘the attractiveness of something imperfect’)

Wabi for the modern age:

Yoshida Printing Headquarters, Tokyo, Kazuo Sejima, 2014. Facade of steel mesh and curtains. Recently completed, it remains to be seen whether it will also attain sabi by ageing gracefully.

Enshu, in turn, moved the aesthetics of the tea ceremony again, developing the style known as kirei-sabi. The concept of sabi is linked to that of wabi and the two are often presented in combination (wabi-sabi) but they bring different dimensions to the idea of understated simplicity. Both eschew ostentation but while wabi accentuates the ideas of humbleness and even impoverishment, sabi more specifically celebrates the subtle beauty created by the aging process, of becoming worn through use and accumulated patina. We might call sabi ‘elegant decay’.

Sabi for the modern age:

Museum of Literature, Himeji, Tadao Ando, 1991.

Enshu moves away from the humble, artless qualities of wabi and not only towards sabi but to the new concept of kirei-sabi. Kirei is an everyday Japanese word usually translated as ‘beautiful’, but also as ‘clean’ or ‘clear’ depending on the situation. For example, applied to water it would translate as ‘clear’, applied to a woman it would translate as ‘beautiful’, applied to a Japanese room it might translate as ‘clean’ or 'beautiful' and this is a useful illustration of how, in Japanese, the concepts overlap. There is a feeling that a woman’s beauty carries the implication of clear eyes and clear, flawless skin for example, and similarly that a room’s cleanliness also makes it beautiful.

So how are we to interpret Enshu’s combination of kirei and sabi? The concepts of beauty and elegance are easily put together; the ideas of cleanliness and decay, the purity of clear water and the patina of age developed through repeated handling, almost of soiling, less so. And so the meaning of kirei-sabi is open to interpretation and, as kirei-sabi is the basis of Enshu-gonomi (Enshu-style) the consequences of Enshu-gonomi are also open to interpretation, and that has led to a situation where Katsura (which is based on Enshu-gonomi) has been interpreted in a number of different ways.

Three Architects – Three Views

There have been many studies published on Katsura and these are comprehensively recorded in Dana Buntrock’s Katsura Imperial Villa: A Brief Descriptive Bibliography with Illustrations 5. Only a few studies have been by architects and, of these, the most influential have been by Sutemi Horiguchi, Kenzo Tange and Arata Isozaki, which can be broadly categorised as offering The Eclectic View, The Modernist View and The Post-Modernist View.

The Modernist View

As outlined in my earlier post, Two Houses : Part 1, immediately on his arrival in Japan, Bruno Taut was co-opted by a group of Japanese architects wishing to develop a modernism based on ‘pure’ Japanese elements. They took him to Katsura Imperial Villa, which Taut declared to be both ‘the archetype of Japaneseness’ and also ‘absolutely modern insofar as it fulfils its requirements in the shortest and most simple way’.

His Japanese hosts, and a succession of modernists thereafter (both in Japan and in the west), seem to have ignored the caveat: insofar as it fulfils its requirements in the shortest and most simple way, and concentrated solely on the idea that Katsura was absolutely modern. As I have argued in earlier posts, they did this by considering not the purpose, context or circumstances that led to the design but through a purely stylistic analysis. Moreover, they not only ignored those parts of Taut’s statement that didn’t suit their purpose, they also ignored those parts of Katsura that didn’t suit their purpose. These stylistic analyses relied heavily on image and, in the language of image, were conducted through a zoom lens, which was trained only on those elements that supported a particular agenda and excluded those elements that would not.

Katsura viewed through the modernist lens.

The Katsura admired and promoted by the modernists was no longer the Katsura as originally built. Sutemi Horiguchi has shown that at least one major element had been removed (a large red bridge that spanned the pond and dominated the centre of the composition) and Isozaki has noted that the timbers of the main villa had blackened with age whilst the paper in the paper screens had undergone periodic renewal allowing it to retain its whiteness. A succession of modernists failed to engage with the former fact whilst accentuating the latter. Engagement with the bridge would have required a radical re-reading of Katsura from a modernist perspective whilst the juxtaposition of black horizontal and vertical lines and white rectangles promoted happy comparisons with Mondrian paintings and the whole idea of modernist abstract composition.

The juxtaposition of black lines and white rectangles.

The interpretation of Katsura as an abstract composition was favoured by many modernists and reached iconic status with the publication in 1960 of Kenzo Tange’s book Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture, with photographs by Yasuhiro Ishimoto. The book is dominated by Ishimoto’s photographs, which are composed and framed to emphasise the pre-existing agenda to link Katsura to European modernist abstraction. The style is heavily influenced by the Bauhaus (the book’s introductory essay is by Walter Gropius and graphic design by Herbert Bayer).

Above: The zoom lens image composed and framed to suit the modernist agenda.

Below : The wide lens view of the same scene.

The modernist view requires an interpretation of kirei, in Enshu’s kirei-sabi, as clean, clear, fine, sharp.

The Post-Modernist View

In 1983 Arata Isozaki published Katsura Imperial Retreat: Space and Form, with photographs again by Yasuhiro Ishimoto. This followed immediately after completion of extensive renovations, carried out by The Imperial Household Agency over the preceding decade. Isozaki is an architect who is extremely conscious of history and of the developments in architecture over time, and of his place within that continuum. This is clear in his work and his writing in ways that are both general and specific. In general Isozaki’s work and commentary has changed with the zeitgeist and it is to be expected that, in the early 1980’s, he would have adopted a post-modern stance. Specifically, Isozaki was also reacting to his mentor, Tange. In his approach to Katsura, Isozaki consciously opposed the approach adopted by Tange: he highlighted those parts that had been excluded by Tange; he used colour photography where Tange had used black and white and he emphasised the point by using the same photographer; where Tange had adopted a modernist stance Isozaki adopted a post-modernist stance. He is quite explicit about this when describing the intent behind the book:

We shall eliminate any sort of Bauhaus-type analysis. We shall use those parts of the palace that have been neglected in former studies to illuminate our method. In particular, we shall take into serious consideration those brilliant, gorgeous, sometimes gaudy elements of taste and style…6

In his commentary on the various ways that Katsura has been analysed Isozaki employs a rather laboured analogy with the tea ceremony in which he equates Horiguchi’s approach to that of the tea master Sen no Rikyu, and Tange’s approach to that of Rikyu’s pupil Furuta Oribe. As neither Horiguchi nor Tange themselves drew any such comparisons we can assume that Isozaki sets up the analogy for the sole purpose of extending it, which he does, to conclude that the next reading of Katsura (i.e.Isozaki’s reading) should be like the tea ceremony of Kobori Enshu. Enshu, who Isozaki says:

…without necessarily discovering anything new, confronted all the techniques and accumulated knowledge of tea, freely selected his favourites (konomi), and regrouped these into a rather daring new system, occasionally even risking kitschification.7

Substitute the word ‘architecture’ for ‘tea’ in the above quote and it is hard to escape the feeling that Isozaki is also describing himself.

Those brilliant, gorgeous, sometimes gaudy elements... Interior of the Shokintei teahouse at Katsura.

We don’t need to guess at the post-modern interpretation of kirei in Enshu’s kirei-sabi; Isozaki provides it and translates kirei as ‘gorgeousness’. In a thoroughly post-modern rejection of the Calvinist severity of ‘black and white’ modernism he embraces the Catholic luxury of ‘full-colour’ post-modernism.

The Eclectic View

Sutemi Horiguchi’s book on Katsura came before those of Tange and Isozaki but I have chosen to look at it last because it takes a more inclusive approach, viewing Katsura through a wide-angle lens. This was necessary in order that Horiguchi, like the others, could project his own reading onto Katsura, in his case eclecticism.

Katsura: a more inclusive view. From top: Main Villa from across the pond; Main Villa; Shokintei teahouse; Shoiken teahouse; Shokatei teahouse.

As noted in my earlier post, Two Houses: Part 1, Horiguchi was one of the first Japanese architects to visit Europe and to attempt to reconcile Western Modernism with Japanese architecture. His approach was eclectic, and rather than seek some common denominator he simply juxtaposed elements from both traditions, sometimes with more success than others. The example pictured in my earlier post is not particularly successful (you can literally see the joint between the two elements) but others were more seamless and elegant, for example his Okada House of 1934 (since demolished).

Horiguchi was one of the first, and remained one of the most consistent, to respond to the crisis in Japanese architecture brought about by the influx of western modernism in the 1930’s. In 1934 he published Japan-ness in Architecture 8**, in which he sought to identify the essence of Japan-ness in a number of historic buildings but did not include Katsura.

** Isozaki’s choice of the same title for his own book in 2006 is, at once, a recognition of Horiguchi and a reflection of Isozaki’s desire to be seen as part of a Japanese architectural lineage.

As noted previously, after Taut’s intervention, it was impossible to join the debate without addressing Katsura, and Horiguchi turned to its study during the years of the Second World War, publishing Katsura Rikyu 9 in 1953. In a detailed study, Horiguchi concludes that Katsura is not simply the restrained, abstract, black and white composition promoted by other modernists, who could only support that view by failing to engage with the totality of the design. Three elements are highlighted that were either ignored under the modernist view or were positively disdained and refuted.

The first element is the so-called Cycad Hill, cycads being a species of Japanese palm tree, of which Taut wrote: Unfortunately, palm trees had been planted on the charming lawn, a later addition and absolutely inappropriate.

Day of The Cycads: looking even more alien wrapped in their winter protection.

Horiguchi was able to show that the palms were not a later addition and suggested that they were chosen deliberately and in order to create an element of dissonance that the design of the garden required.

The second element is the bold use of colour in the Shokintei teahouse, with its indigo and white checker pattern on internal walls and sliding screens.

The bold use of colour: indigo and white checkerboard pattern in the Shokintei teahouse..

And the third element is the large red bridge that originally connected the previous two elements and which Horiguchi was able to identify from historical documents and paintings.

Two great pine trees facing each other across the pond, and a big red-coloured bridge connecting these – such used to constitute the dynamic centre of the whole span of Katsura’s garden. No matter how much the Katsura of today moves us, having lost its centre it is a mere ghost of the original as far as the garden is concerned.10

This is the bridge at Sumiyoshi Taisha (Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine) in Osaka, which might approximate to the bridge referred to by Horiguchi : A big red-coloured bridge that constituted "the dynamic centre of the whole span of Katsura's garden".

Horiguchi produced a plan of the whole Katsura complex, from which we can see that these three elements formed a linear procession: from the jungle-green, alien-looking cycads, over the vermillion bridge, to the blue and white checkerboard planes of the tea house, a fecund slash of exuberant colour and pattern that cuts through the centre of Katsura and sets up a counterpoint to the restrained villa on the opposite shore.

Site plan re-imagined with colour added to illustrate the sequence of: cycads - original bridge - checkerboard decoration in Shokintei teahouse.

These and other elements did not fit with the modernist reading of Katsura and so were ignored, or denied, or disparaged as kitsch=unauthentic=un-Japanese. On the other hand, they were celebrated by the postmodernist reading, to the detriment, or exclusion, of other elements admired by the modernists. Of the three examinations of Katsura, by Tange, Isozaki and Horiguchi, Horiguchi’s, whilst also coloured by his own project, seems to offer the most balanced or, at least, the most encompassing view, which does not seek to define the meaning of Enshu’s kirei-sabi but embraces the ambiguity and dissonance that it implies.

The dynamic centre of Katsura re-imagined: the large red bridge leading to the blue and white checkerboard screens of the Shokintei teahouse.

The Real Katsura

So where does the real Katsura lie in all these competing interpretations? Whilst acutely aware that any attempt to answer that is simply another interpretation, I would venture that, in relation to the buildings, Horiguchi’s reading is perhaps the most accurate in that it captures the relaxed, informal planning and mix of styles. However, having visited Katsura again recently, I feel that each of the architectural interpretations, understandably, has laid too much emphasis on the buildings and, in particular on the main villa. Katsura is first and foremost a man-made landscape in which buildings have been located to allow controlled views of the gardens, not the other way round. We make a mistake when we concentrate our view on the buildings; we need to reverse our view and judge the buildings as vantage points from which to view the gardens. The main villa is not the focus of attention when walking round Katsura, indeed for much of the time it is obscured by planting. If anything, the focus of attention is the pond and, if Horiguchi is correct in identifying the original presence of a large red bridge in the location he has described, that must have been the dominant feature seen from all the formal viewpoints, including the Ko-shoin (the original part of the main villa).

When the trees are in leaf the main villa is largely hidden from view until the observer comes close to it.

This view from the Gepparo, which sits next to the main villa, approximates to the view from the Ko-shoin (the original part of the main villa) re-imagined as it would have been when the bridge existed.

1. New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics, edited by A. Minh Nguyen, Chapter entitled Authority in Taste, Richard Bullen, published by Lexington Books (2018).

2. The Practice of Tea 5 - The Zen Tea Record: A statement of Chanoyu as Buddhist Practice, this translation by Denis Hirota, published in Chanoyu Quarterly 54 (1988).

3. The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura, published by Dover Publications, New York (1964)

4. An Architecture Tradition / A craftsman’s Tradition : The Craftsman’s Role in Japanese Architecture, Stanley Russell, University of South Florida (Paper available online as PDF)

5. Katsura Imperial Villa: A Brief Descriptive Bibliography, with Illustrations, Dana Buntrock, University of California Berkley, published in Cross-Currents, East Asian History and Culture Review, e-journal No.3 (June 2012)

6. Katsura Imperial Retreat: Space and Form, Arata Isozaki, published by Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo (1983)

7. Japan-ness in Architecture, Arata Isozaki, published by MIT Press (2006)

8. Kenchiku ni okeru Nihonteki-na-mono (Japan-ness in Architecture), included in Horiguchi Sutemi Chosaku-shū (Collected Works of Sutemi Horiguchi), published by Kajima Shuppan Kai, Tokyo (1978)

9. The Katsura Imperial Villa, Sutemi Horiguchi, published by Mainichi Newspapers (1953).

10. Ibid

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