Tradition And Revision

Tradition And Revision

Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture: Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro
Yasufumi Nakamori
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, $50.00

Katsura Imperial Villa, built on the outskirts of Kyoto during the late-1500s to mid-1600s, has been a touchstone of modern architecture and a pilgrimage site for itinerant architects for years. Many modern architects reference the historical ensemble of carefully composed pavilions and manicured landscapes for their clean lines, contrasting materials, and thoughtful details as a timeless and traditional basis of modern architecture—the more notable include Bruno Taut in the 1930s and Walter Gropius in the 50s.

Shortly after World War II, Japan’s culturati debated their relation to tradition and modernity, a concept largely imported from the West. None however may have been more instrumental in formalizing and disseminating Japanese architecture’s position than Kenzo Tange working through Katsura and a series of photographs by Yasuhiro Ishimoto.

In 1953, Tange, a bourgeoning architect with determined ideas, met Ishimoto, a young photographer who had recently returned to Japan after living in the U.S. for 14 years and studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design under many expat Bauhaus masters. The two soon became friends through their mutual interests in new directions in the arts.

Tange, seeking a traditional base for modernity, had photographed ­­­Katsura Villa, and the photographs were strikingly similar to Ishimoto’s focus on texture, material, structure, and landscape. But with their “New Bauhaus” pedigree, Ishimoto’s photos gained increasing respect in critical circles, galleries, and museums. In 1954, after he completed his final month-long photo shoot of the villa, Ishimoto was offered a contract to publish a book of his Katsura photos.

The resulting Katsura: Tradition and Creation of Japanese Architecture, originally published in both the U.S. and Japan in 1960, remains the most significant photographic publication of Japanese architecture. Designed by famed Bauhaus graphic artist Herbert Bayer, the book comprises essays by Gropius and Tange and 135 black-and-white photographs by Ishimoto.

However, Yasufumi Nakamori, reveals in his recent book Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture: Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro that Tange, now recognized as the godfather of modern Japanese architecture, hijacked Ishimoto’s book in its incipient form from photographer, designer, and publisher. In an extended essay, Nakamori unravels the book’s history in what reads like a crime novel complete with a cast of international characters and hidden agendas, nearly everything except a corpse. Nakamori, assistant curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, enhances his intriguing historical account by including letters, comparative evidence, cultural analysis, and ultimately the stolen goods—Ishimoto’s photographs in their original state.

In 1955, Ishimoto invited Tange to contribute an essay to the forthcoming book, which gave Tange just enough room to exert a hands-on interest. Nakamori argues that Tange, motivated by a desire to disseminate his architectural theory, cropped Ishimoto’s highly formal photographs and arranged them into a focused polemic. The legitimacy the publication offered was the perfect opportunity for Tange to launch an international promotional campaign.


During the next five years that it took to produce the book, Ishimoto became a frequent photographic contributor to Shinkenchiku, Japan’s leading architecture magazine, where Tange, close friends with its publisher, contributed articles propagating Katsura’s vernacular and noble features as “dialectic forces…as a modern symbol of postwar Japan.” During this time, Nakamori reports, Ishimoto removed himself from the publishing process after entrusting his photos with the editorial team. Ishimoto quietly, but eagerly, waited to see his work published internationally as he moved on to other projects.

Exploring the depth of Tange and Ishimoto’s collaboration, Nakamori reveals how their words and images influenced modern Japanese architecture. Despite Tange’s heavy hand, Nakamori proves that the photos, no matter how cropped, bear Ishimoto’s distinct style by comparing them to originals. However, citing the book’s 1983 edition, which includes color photos taken after the villa’s restoration, Nakamori claims that without Tange’s captions and arrangement, the “sumptuously rich” images “miss the sensation of taking an imagined tour.”

Nakamori has executed a fine work of comparative analysis, firsthand interviews, and historical research that combines photography, architecture, and cultural history. The catalog, which accompanied an exhibition of the original photographs, succinctly illustrates the architectural debate in Japan following World War II and Ishimoto’s photographic contributions to it. Following the square-ish format of the book it dissects, the beautifully designed Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture features an Ishimoto photograph on the hardcover that a Mylar dust jacket partially crops, a perfect summation of Nakamori’s thesis. Besides being beautifully designed, the book includes thorough notes, a chronology and bibliography and serves as an important contribution to the growing studies of post-war Japanese art and architecture.