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The Katsura Imperial Villa - A Brief History Of This Ancient Japanese Structure And Gardens

By Edited Oct 13, 2015 0 0

Located in the western suburbs of Kyoto, Japan, Katsura Villa stands as one of the most important pieces of Japanese architecture and garden design.  Originally built in the 1600s, this complex contains a number of buildings and a sprawling, beautifully groomed garden and a pond.  The villa itself was originally dreamed up by Prince Hachijo Toshito, who was heavily influenced by the ancient Japanese novel titled the Tale of Genji, which dated from the 11th century.

Constructing The Katsura Villa And Its Design

Prince Toshito, founder of Katsura Villa, was the younger brother of Emperor Goyozei and was an expert in Japanese literature.  One of his favorite stories, the Tale of Genji, would have a profound impact on the design of the Katsura Villa.  It was his hope to bring elements of this story to vibrant life.  His first step was to actually obtain a plot of land where the “Katsura Mansion” was located in Genji.  This served as an ideal setting to create a retreat surrounded by nature. 

            The Katsura complex is composed of the shoin, or home, and five teahouses, all surrounded by a carefully planned garden.  These gardens, influenced by the The Tale of Genji

, are integral to the entire design of the complex.  Within Genji a garden is mentioned where light is beautifully reflected off of a fresh snowfall.  This idyllic setting influenced the design of the garden where plants, trees, and natural forms were all placed to create or deny views.  The idea of reflection took the form of a pond in the middle of the complex and proved vital in the design of the shoin.              

            The orthogonal geometry of the buildings at Katsura is shifted sixty-three degrees to the east to create views towards the rising moon.  On perhaps the centerpiece of the entire complex, the Moon-Viewing Platform provides the ideal place to view this celestial mass.  The platform was based off of a passage out of Genji stating, “in the country village of Katsura, the reflection of the moon on the river is clear and tranquil.”  The structure opens up onto the pond itself, creating a beautiful view of the gardens and the moon.  All of the buildings at Katsura lack symmetry as a response to both the environment and architectural tradition.  This was purely intentional as asymmetrical, imperfect buildings were seen as a part of the flow of life; symmetry was reserved for temples.  With this harmony of the built environment and nature, Katsura has stood for centuries as one of the most important series of buildings in Japanese architecture. 

Katsura Imperial Villa

The Katsura Villa

The Katsura Villa Today

In the mid 1900s, the Katsura Villa gained in popularity throughout the architectural community after famous architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius visited the compound.  Both were inspired by the minimalism and use of orthogonal geometry in the design.  Architects and architectural students still study the Katsura Villa, which stands as a testament to the timelessness of its style of Japanese architecture.  Today, the compound is under the control of the Imperial House Agency, which allows visitors onto the grounds by appointment only.  

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