This site uses cookies to improve your navigation experience. By continuing you accept our policy cookie.


Your cart is empty

Checkout Empty cart

The birth of modern Japan in ten masterpieces: I. Katsura Imperial Villa

Discovering the buildings that shaped 20th-century Japan with an exceptional guide.

by Nanban

The advent of modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century was a turning point in the life of every Japanese, a revolution that overwhelmed centuries of tradition, opening up to new creative solutions that were previously unthinkable, based on a unique synthesis between Western influences and local aesthetic specificities.

If today's Japan is radically different, for better or for worse, from the idea that still shines through, for example, from the streets of the famous geisha district of Gion in Kyoto, the seed of this change is to be found in the main architectures of modernism, the whose shoots have taken root in the cities, definitively transforming, in materials and proportions, the typical appearance of small and large Japanese cities.

The great photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who has always been closely linked to modernist aesthetics, has made a selection of ten buildings which are paradigmatic for Japanese modernism, in an ideal itinerary which, not surprisingly, takes its cue from the extraordinary Katsura Imperial Villa to then review the pinnacles of Japanese modernism and beyond.

I. Katsura Imperial Villa (17th century)

All cultural movements have points of reference and Japanese Modernism is no exception: the Imperial Villa of Katsura can be defined as its ideal starting point.

The Villa was already known in the world of tea ceremonies and Sutemi Horiguchi, celebrated architect and historian of Japanese architecture but at the same time a master of the tea ceremony, had already expressed his appreciation for its architecture.

But it was Bruno Taut's visit to Japan in 1933 that made it internationally famous, to the point that Arata Isozaki, in the collection of essays dedicated to Japan-ness - that is to say the specific identity of Japanese architecture - in delimiting the genesis of this identity marks as the starting date the second day of Bruno Taut's stay in Japan, when his friend Isaburo Ueno takes him to visit the imperial residence of Katsura.

“Pure bare architecture. Touching-innocent like a child”, Taut defines it, fascinated by its “flock of geese in flight” arrangement, which represented for him “the free art of a free spirit”. The same freedom that reigns in the modernist movement. At Katsura rikyū "every element – house, water, dock for boats, tree, stone – has a life of its own, like a good society" and "The whole complex, from whichever side it was observed, followed in each of its parts and in an absolutely elastic way the purpose that each of them, no less than the whole, was destined to fulfill, the normal daily utility or representation, or the expression of a high philosophical spirituality. The marvelous thing was that all three of these purposes were so intimately connected in one unity, that no boundaries were perceived between one and the other."

Before Taut, the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, with its extraordinary decorations, was considered the maximum expression of Japanese beauty, but it is inevitably at the antipodes of the modernist movement, which aims for an ideal of simplicity and frugality.

Finally, the perfect synthesis between interiors and exteriors, with one of the most exciting Japanese-style gardens in Japan whose presence "dominates the space to such an extent that all the surfaces of the walls appear designed to reflect it".

Immersing yourself still today in this extraordinary creation, completed over two generations by the imperial Hachijō-no-miya house, as well as an unrepeatable experience, is the perfect starting point for understanding the developments of Japanese modernism.