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BOOK

REVIEW

Katsura Imperial Villa Edited by Arata Isozaki.Electa, 2005. 398pp. £45

Illustrating Arata Isozaki's introduction to this splendid book on Katsura Imperial Villa are two sequences of photographs by Yasuhiro Ishimoto - one from a 1960 volume on the villa, the other from 1983. 'When we compare the two approaches of the same photographer, the difference is so radical that it is almost impossible to believe it is the same Katsura, ' says Isozaki.

The 1960 images turn the villa into a series of nearabstractions. Its pitched roofs are almost eliminated, as is much of the landscape; in one shot it looks like a timber version of Crown Hall. This was a Modernist Katsura for an audience raised on Mondrian.

By contrast, the 1983 images, though still very carefully composed, are less rigorous in their geometry and include more context: here the villa is more a place than a page in an art book.

What Isozaki neatly demonstrates is that Katsura - which began life in the 17th century as a 'simple teahouse in the melon patch', and evolved into a central complex of buildings integrated with ancillary ones in a finely calculated garden - has been open to various readings, maybe misreadings.

Bruno Taut discovered it for Modernism in 1934 and the book includes facsimile excerpts from his Japanese Diary, along with texts by Gropius, Kenzo Tange and Isozaki which all annex the villa to a particular end - in Isozaki's case, precisely to refute the Modernist emphasis on transparency and system and offer a more nuanced account.

For most people, however, the book's many new photographs by Yoshiharu Matsumura will be the attraction. Regularly interspersed with plans to keep you oriented, they give a logically sequenced tour of the buildings and grounds.

Aesthetically, they take the tendency of the 1983 images a stage further, so there's the sense (or illusion) that you're getting a full picture of the complex and the relationship of all its contributing parts.

That's not at the expense of detail, though: for instance, there are gorgeous close-ups of pathways and paving - the subtle disposition of shaped and irregular elements, the different textures and colours, the gleaming surface of some pebbles after the rain. And there are still the kind of images that Taut and Gropius would linger over: the long interior views layered by luminous sliding screens. But equally striking are some roofscape panoramas that the Modernists would have censored: one spread especially, shot at ridge-tile level, gives a powerful sense of Katsura as an organism, a mostly pragmatic accretion of parts.

The photos are accompanied by a large number of drawings, which at times are rather too small but still make the construction of the buildings explicit and increase the impression of the book's thoroughness. And perhaps for occidental readers, just the words 'moon-viewing platform' on a plan have a poetry that's hard to resist.

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