The Japanese-American landscape designer Taro Akutagawa (1917 – 2002) was born in Los Angeles California. Educated in Japan, he returned to California shortly before the beginning of World War to join his family’s successful small farming business. His career was cut short on February 19, 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 which forced all Americans of Japanese ancestry, regardless of loyalty or citizenship, to leave their lives on the West Coast and enter internment camps. Owing to his Japanese education Akutagawa was one of the first in his community to be detained and interned, and one of the last to be released.

In spite of the fact that his internment was a flagrant violation of his civil liberties, Akutagawa came to believe that the time he spent in the desert internment camp of Poston, Arizona, advanced his education in life and helped him to develop his leadership skills.

In 1946 Akutagawa returned to California taking a job in the import/export business, where he met his wife, Tazue. Akutagawa and his in-laws, the Yonemoto family, relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here he launched a new agricultural business, beginning with a small fruit stand which in time became a yard supply store with a gift shop and café, and eventually a sizeable landscaping firm. Motivated by a desire to share Japanese culture with their community, the Akutagawa family also opened the first Japanese restaurant in New Mexico.

  • Tazue and Taro Akutagawa, 1985
    photo by Grant Therkildsen, courtesy of the Akutagawa Family

During this period of his life Akutagawa designed the landscapes for a significant number of post World War developments including commercial properties and architect-designed homes. His blend of traditional Japanese landscape styles with a native plant palette eventually attracted the attention of the Tucson developers John and Helen Murphey.

The Murpheys worked with noted architect Josias Joesler, and later, Mexican architect Juan Wørner Baz, to create their iconic projects in Tucson and the Santa Catalina Foothills. In 1961 they selected Akutagawa to work with Wørner Baz to design their own home, Casa Juan Paisano, which was featured on the cover of Architectural Digest. The same team subsequently designed the historic Catalina Foothills Apartments, a complex composed of sixteen units and a master house. Here Akutagawa was charged with creating a landscape to unify the site. Initially planned as vacation homes the Catalina Foothills Apartments were set in expansive gardens, replete with a swimming pool, waterfall, and koi pond. Overall the style of the complex reflects Worner Baz’ Mexican Colonial style a fusion of Spanish Colonial with International Modernism. The exterior structures call to mind regional architectural styles, while expansive modernist window walls blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space, welcoming the visitor into Akutagawa’s landscape.

  • Taro’s Gardens Nursery & Gift Shop, Albuquerque, New Mexico, c.1964
    photo courtesy of the Akutagawa Family

Akutagawa never undertook formal study in landscape architecture, drawing instead on his own experience and the shared knowledge of his family. He used bonsai techniques to move mountainside specimens of southwestern pines by crane to his landscapes. He merged traditional Japanese design with the natural elements of the southwest to create inspired desert landscapes.

Shinto and Buddhist principles guided Akutagawa’s design. Every aspect of the landscape was created with intent. Earth was settled into undulating hills. Rock forms, cacti, and imported Mexican statues punctuated the rhythmic ow and instituted a permanent physical structure. Akutagawa landscapes were designed to be discovered, with winding, circuitous paths encouraging exploration. Dynamic focal points integrated mountains and water. The timeless character of his work continues to enchant in the landscapes of the Catalina Foothills Apartments, Casa Juan Paisano, and the Posada Real Townhomes.

  • Catalina Foothills Apartments Pond and Fountain
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas
  • Catalina Foothills Apartments, Koi Pond
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas
  • Catalina Foothills Apartments Garden Detail
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas
  • Catalina Foothills Apartments Rock Fountain
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas
  • Catalina Foothills Apartments Rock Fountain
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas
  • Catalina Foothills Apartments Pond
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas
  • Catalina Foothills Apartments Pool & Ramada
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas
  • Catalina Foothills Apartments Pool & Ramada
    photo by Jude Ignacio + Gerardine Vargas

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