Katsura + culture: Forum puts CTA Design Director in pontificating mood

By: Jim Beal
3 March 2016

Rumination is an important component in the process of design. The ability to set a problem down and walk away from it, to allow the subconscious to take over while the conscious mind refreshes is often helpful. In a similar manner, the mind sometimes needs time to process an experience, and so it has been for me in regards to the sharing my feelings on CTA’s 2015 Design Forum, hosted by our Austin team in November of last year.

The impulse behind this Forum began as a search for a dialogue between CTA’s rural roots and newer urban design opportunities, between past and present, between the old west and urban, between Billings (MT) and Austin (TX).

A tour of the Livestrong Foundation with Lake Flato architect Bob Harris reminded us that placemaking isn’t only reserved for rural sites; urban spaces can indeed connect to nature, harvest natural light, be environmentally responsible, and raise our spirits. Designing for a purpose can ignite our inner passions.

Touring the new Austin Library while still under construction, also designed by Lake Flato, reinforced the firm’s commitment to authentic details, the keen use of materials, and the importance of craftsmanship. Carrying the initial conceptions of a building into the smallest details transforms those conceptions into experience and reality. Concept void of detail will not be understood, and creating that detail from the hands of a craftsman adds richness to the place.

Joel Anderson, CTA Billings Design Director, steered the Forum dialogue to the centuries-old Japanese Katsura Imperial Villa. Katsura represents Eastern virtues that Western modern architecture is still striving to achieve: human scale, openness, complete flexibility of movable exterior and interior walls, changeability and multi-use of spaces, prefabrication, simplicity, elegance, environmental responsibility, and connecting to nature.

It is striking to me that the tenets of Lake Flato’s work are manifested in Katsura 400 years later: blurring the lines between architecture and landscape, environmental responsibility, authenticity and artfulness, and respect for tradition. Katsura, however, has a rich level of craftsmanship that likely won’t be repeated in any modern building. The craftsmanship of the Villa is deeply connected to the Japanese culture that created it. Ironically, just as modern Western architects like Walter Gropius began studying Katsura, Japanese architects were fighting to abandon most of their cultural values that gave the Villa its craft, leaning instead toward progress based on science and technique. Gropius wrote, “East and West must adapt their attitudes and enrich each other, discarding what is weak and obsolete on both sides.”

And so it goes with our own search to link past to present, our rural roots to growing urban locations. We must adapt our attitudes and enrich each other. We must discard what is weak on both sides. Katsura teaches us a lesson in this dialogue. It holds a standard for CTA’s work, and that standard is not “modern,” “contemporary,” “trendsetting,” or “just what we like.” It is, however, elegant simplicity, effortless effectiveness, understated excellence, beautiful imperfection, and severe exquisiteness. It also teaches us the importance of culture. CTA is one culture of many offices, not many cultures of one firm. We can’t lose our culture, for it is the essence of craft.

Main image: CTA’s team listens with rapt attention during a tour of the Livestrong Foundation.


Hailing from Billings, MT, architect/principal Jim Beal serves as CTA’s Design Director.


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