Proportional perfection

Separated by about four centuries and the Pacific Ocean this pair of houses may seem on paper to have little in common. One was an imperial villa in Kyoto, the other a suburban villa in West Hollywood. One is built on Zen principles for the Japanese emperor, the other was built by a central European architect for himself.

Yet these two houses, so far apart in time and space, are among those that most influenced the modern movement. The Katsura Imperial Villa – or perhaps more properly, palace – is a beautiful but modest building of timber, paper and pitched roofs set in a carefully contrived garden of exquisite beauty. It is extraordinary to compare it with, for example Versailles, which was being built around the same time in France. While the French palace is dripping with gold and rococo curlicues, its Japanese counterpart is stripped back to the bare bones.

The building’s harmony comes from its proportional perfection. Everything here is based on the dimensions of the tatami mat, which provides the human-scaled unit that governs the construction of the villa. Walls are ephemeral – paper framed in slender wooden battens – and can be slid aside to disappear entirely and open up the rooms to the landscape or allow spaces to flow into each other. The rooms themselves are gorgeous, devoid of free-standing furniture but with built-in cupboards and nooks. Five separate tea pavilions can be discovered through the grounds, only showing themselves at the last moment on convoluted paths through the landscape, and these are the most beautiful buildings of all – places of relaxation and ritual, of contemplation of landscape and time.

But one of the most surprising facets of historic Japanese architecture is that the fabric of this building – like that of many others in the nation’s historic centre, Kyoto – is only a few years old. The idea that historical value can be divorced from material can be difficult for westerners to grasp. This is a building made of flimsy, delicate timbers and paper, materials that have a duration of no more than a couple of decades. The reverence here is not for the material but for the proportion.

Rudolf Schindler

When the European modernists discovered Katsura in the early 20th century, they were blown away. Here was everything they had dreamt of finding. Coming from cities hidebound in history where architects were constrained by respect for the existing fabric and forced to build in streets laid out of medieval palimpsests, they were profoundly impressed by this building existing in a landscape and generated by its own internal geometry. German expressionist architect Bruno Taut was first but Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, also visited – as did Le Corbusier, in whose modular designs for apartment blocks, notably the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, you can see the influence of the screen walls and flowing spaces.

I don’t know if Rudolf Schindler visited the villa but he was in Japan before all the others and it is through his extraordinary house that the Japanese aesthetic first spread through 20th-century modernist culture.

Exterior view of Schindler House

Schindler (1887-1953) was born in Vienna, where he took part in the creative boom that helped to invent modernist architecture and was influenced by a scene including Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. But it was the work of Frank Lloyd Wright that affected him more than any local developments. In 1914, he made his way to the US and became project architect on Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It was during this period that he built his house on Kings Road in West Hollywood, which was actually two ground level apartments for himself and his wife and another young couple. It is profoundly Japanese in character: dark timber posts and beams filled in with white panels recall the paper walls of the Katsura Villa. It is also arguably the first modernist house in the US (if you don’t count the more eclectic and individual houses of Frank Lloyd Wright).

It was an unconventional dwelling. There were no living rooms, no dining rooms, not even any bedrooms; instead, there were multipurpose studios, two for each family plus another for guests. Each had a private garden or a terrace and were separated by service spaces including bathrooms. It was a social structure inspired, in part, by a camping trip Schindler had taken in Yosemite National Park and by a more European modernist vision of communal living. This was something different to the American suburban idea of compartmented space.

Interior of Schindler House

The floors in the house were of raw concrete – now fashionable, then extremely unusual. The hearths were open, with no grates so that logs spilt carelessly out – a memory of those camp fires. The walls echo the tatami mat proportions, framed into a rectangular grid with glass replacing the paper of the Katsura villa in the delicate timber frames. Like the Japanese model, the walls were sliding and spaces flowed into each other. There were no corridors and there was no fixed hierarchy of rooms; this was a house with a fluid plan that presaged the modernism of Mies van der Rohe while also looking back to Frank Lloyd Wright’s wonderfully expansive plans.

We think of modernism as characteristically spacious: light and airy, white walls, huge rooms and big windows. But the Schindler house is not like that at all: it is far more intimate and delicate than you might imagine, more tea house than grand modernist villa. Wright himself was hugely influenced by what he saw in Japan but Schindler managed to imbibe more than style or impression, he translated the deceptively simple complexity of Japanese architecture into an American model.

If the Katsura Villa stands firmly at the heart of the Japanese tradition, Schindler’s double-dwelling house stands slightly outside the history of modernism – as did his subsequent houses. Schindler was an eccentric; Wright called him an “incorrigible bohemian” and believed that Schindler was developing a uniquely West Coast architecture, a modernist hybrid. He was right but the world only caught up decades after his death. That his house is now owned by the Viennese MAK Centre perhaps indicates that even now he is more revered in Europe than he ever was in America. But even Wright, who was always loath to praise a fellow architect, called him “capable as an artist”. His most revealing comment on his former employee however was this, “I suspect him of trying to give his clients too much for their money. I should say that was his extreme fault in these circumstances of endeavouring to build buildings.”

‘The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln (£12.99)

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