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The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation restores the work of the Japanese American landscape designer Taro Akutagawa to the modernist desert Southwest.
Like many cities in the Southwest (Palm Springs, California, most conspicuously), Tucson, Arizona, has a decent bank of midcentury modern buildings and landscapes. In the 1950s and 1960s, home buyers, drawn by the mirage of golf course-adjacent desert living (with air-conditioning, swimming pools, and lawns), flocked to the Southwest, and large swaths of the new development that went up during that era were built in the middle-class modern idiom. In the Southwest, modernism incorporated regional materials and climatic adaptations into lively vernacular architecture, and also generated some truly inspired landscapes.
Tucson Modernism Week was launched by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation in 2001 to highlight the region’s midcentury modern architecture and landscape heritage. The foundation is also among a handful of preservation groups trying to broaden notions of modern design to include the work of women and people of color, as well as expanding the boundaries of modernism to include textiles, dance, ceramics, and neon.
Among those whom the foundation has brought to the public’s attention is Taro Akutagawa (1917–2002), a Japanese American landscape designer whose work, primarily in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been nearly erased. The foundation’s Taro Akutagawa Collection contains photographs, newspaper clippings, archival images, drawings, and plans.
The outlines of Akutagawa’s life and work are known, though there is not quite a full accounting of his projects. He was born in California in 1917 and educated in Japan before returning to California to work at his family’s small farming business. In February 1942, when he was 24, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which altered the life of Akutagawa and other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the United States. The order instructed the Secretary of War to create “prescribed military areas,” areas of heightened security along the West Coast, thus initiating a chain of events that forced more than 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry out of their homes and into internment camps farther inland. Akutagawa was interned at Poston, Arizona, on land within the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The complex of three internment camps at Poston was planned by Del Webb, who would later gain some renown as the developer of several marquee retirement communities, including Sun City, Arizona.
Once released from the camp, Akutagawa returned to California in 1946 and later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, Tazue Yonemoto, and her family. A small agricultural business with the Yonemoto family eventually grew to include landscape design, and in 1964, Akutagawa and Tazue opened Taro’s Gardens as a small plant nursery and gift shop, expanding to garden and landscape design, as well as a restaurant—said to be the first Japanese restaurant in New Mexico.
Akutagawa’s designs merged the material vocabulary of Japanese garden design—water, vertical and horizontal rock formations, stone bridges, and the use of trees and shrubs with strong architectural figuration, integrated with succulents and other plants native to the desert. It was a good fit for the contemporary vernacular that was emerging in the Southwest, a combination of modern, colonial, and Mexican revival elements. The result was distinctive and attracted the attention of prominent developers and architects. Akutagawa was not formally trained, but his approach to landscape was steeped in agriculture and plants as well as his own Japanese education. His design business prospered.
In 1962, his best-known residential work, Casa Juan Paisano, was published in Architectural Digest, around a house by the Mexican architect Juan Worner Baz, with whom Akutagawa would collaborate several times. The cover article devoted a page to Akutagawa’s landscape design, which it called an “extraordinary desert landscape.” The design was attributed to “Yonemoto, Akutagawa & Yonemoto, Inc.,” and they advertised their specialty as “Oriental Modern Garden Adapted to the Southwest.”
By the mid-1960s, Akutagawa was hired to work on the Catalina Foothills Estates, also with Worner Baz and the architect Josias Joesler. By then, Taro’s Gardens had sufficient renown to be mentioned in the marketing materials and advertisements for Catalina Foothills as well as those for Rio Rancho, a new suburban development opened in 1967.
At Catalina Foothills, Akutagawa used local and Asian-derived plants including piñon and ponderosa pine, nandina, bamboo, cypress, juniper, and hollygrape to frame the arrangements of rocks and water. Two pools joined by a bridge, one contemplative and still, the other rougher, with movement, sound, and texture, gestured to Japanese and Chinese garden traditions and Buddhist and Shinto practices. Nodding to American taste, Akutagawa planted spring-blooming wildflowers in the joints between the rocks.
In 1968, when he was newly graduated, Gil Berry joined Taro’s Gardens as a designer. He would stay for 10 years, later going on to become the university landscape architect at the University of New Mexico. Berry describes his decade designing under Akutagawa warmly and notes that he was responsible for setting the tone for what became the norm in regional landscape design. “He was a very interesting man,” Berry says. “Most importantly, his design sense was different than anything I’d experienced. When I got out of school, I’d been in a real classical kind of environment. He allowed me, or taught me, to think outside the box.”