Japanese Designers and Tea Houses

Kou-an by Tokujin Yoshioka | click to enlarge

The enigmatic Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka recently announced that he would be participating in Glasstress 2011. Running in parallel with the 54th Venice Biennale, the event invites globally acclaimed designers and architects to express their ideas through the medium of glass. Yoshioka will be presenting Kou-An (光庵), a transparent tea house made from glass1.

What struck me as significant was not that Yoshioka, who has amassed a great deal of influence, was presenting a tea house, but the continued succession of designers, both large and small, driven by either commission or self-will, jumping at the opportunity to design a tea house. In a chain of events that eventually broke the camel’s back, it begged the oh-so-obvious question, what is up with Japanese designers and tea houses?

With low expectations of finding an answer I’d like to take a look at some tea houses designed over the past 10 years, while discussing the history of the tea house and its relationship with architecture.

The Tea Ceremony – a short history

The relationship between tea ceremonies, or cha-no-yu, and the tea house is akin to that of art and the museum. Although they are certainly not mutually exclusive, in many settings the tea house plays an important role in heightening the significance of the former. The tea ceremony originally began in the late Kamakura period (1185–1333) and, for a couple hundred years, took on various roles ranging from the highly spiritual to the obscenely vulgar.

It was a narcissistic and indulgent form of tea that produced a strong response from a few2. Small and secluded huts began to appear in the outskirts of urban centers with a primary intent not of abandonment, but what we would describe almost as a summer retreat. The ruinous huts offered an escape from the everyday bustle and provided individuals with the means to seek out a different perspective. These iori, or hermitages, where the first form of the tea house.

Shigeru Ban – Paper Tea House (2011)

Shigeru Ban’s Paper Tea House was part of a charity sale of Japanese art and design (sponsored by Phillips de Pury & Company) in order to raise money for the refugees of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami3. One of Japan’s most well-known architects, Shigeru Ban has been designing paper tube structures since 1989 with a portfolio that includes multiple refugee housing solutions for disaster zones in places such as Rwanda and Turkey, a temporary office that sits on the roof of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and a paper concert hall in L’aquila, ITALY. The Low-tech, adaptable and recyclable qualities of the structures are consistent with Ban’s ethical and environmental footing.

Shigeru Ban’s Paper Tea House | click to enlarge

An Era of Excess

Led by powerful lords who had gained control by being victorious in many small wars, the simplistic and ruinous iori hut soon morphed into a symbol of wealth and power. Expensive karamono, or Chinese ceramics, began to be incorporated into the design of tea houses, along with various other intricate displays such as the use of expensive wood and washi paper for the structure, latticework on the windows, and the application of lacquer to utensils and other elements. But during the early-to-mid-Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) a significant change took place, which shifted the direction of the tea house. Although it was led by several, for simplicity’s sake we will focus on Sen no Rikyu, who is often credited with sculpting the tea ceremony as we know it today, and whose name is synonymous with the Japanese aesthetic. Rikyu preceded to, one by one, strip strip each aforementioned trait, distilling the tea house down to his ideal space: the rustic tea house, or soan.

Hako-ie (2008)

In 2008, Eyes-Japan, a company who prides itself in its fusion of traditional and modern, announced that they had created Hako-ie. Literally, box house, the structure is meant to serve as a temporary tea house within its larger dwelling. Hako-ie is a sealed off space that filters out and mutes activity in the rest of the home. It acts as a miniature man-made universe. Being eminently erasable in nature, the structure boasts easy assembly and disassembly without the need for a single screw or nail. That year it was awarded a Good Design Award.

You start out with something like this…

bypass a few steps…

and voila!

Moderation in Response to Excess

But Sen no Rikyu didn’t stop with his trimmed down soan tea house. As tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 – 1598), the most powerful man in Japan at the time, Rikyu responded to that power by constructing Tai-an (待庵), his most extreme tea house ever. It’s nijiriguchi entrance was so small that participants had to remove their sword (a symbol of rank) and crawl inside. The interior was anything but glamorous. In fact, it resembled a tiny cave more than anything else. It was the first time that a nijiriguchi had been used for such a powerful figure. The result was a 2-tatami mat space, just enough room for Rikyu and his master, the most powerful man in Japan, to conduct an intimate tea ceremony4.

Kengo Kuma – Fuan Teahouse (2007)

Kengo Kuma has created several unorthodox tea houses. But in 2007 he created Fuan (浮庵) (floating hermitage), a floating tea room comprised of a helium balloon veiled with an ultra-light fabric. Weighing in at a mere 11 grams per square meter, the weight of the material counteracts the upward pressure of the helium, creating a perfectly balanced structure without walls or pillars. Kuma occasionally exhibits his floating tea house (usually in locations of chaotic activity, such as department store), inviting spectators to join a real tea ceremony in a seemingly paradoxical space of virtual reality. The structure, if one can call it that, mirrors Kuma’s distaste for overly-assertive architecture, instead favoring “soft architecture,” a term coined by Kuma that refers to the temporary, almost erasable, characteristics of the discipline that he is drawn to. I can only imagine, but Fuan must offer quite a different perspective on the world as it looks into itself and away from its surrounding environment.

The Death of a Tea Master

Rikyu’s death caused yet another upheaval in tea house architecture. Primarily led by his many disciples who, perhaps freed from the monumental and regal authority that Rikyu represented, branched out into different experimental directions. The students built upon and expanded upon their master’s heritage. Although Rikyu’s blood descendants emulated his style and continued to experiment with ultra-small tea houses, as a whole, post-Rikyu tea rooms tended to be brighter and larger.

Jun Igarashi – Tea House (2006)

In 2006 Hokkaido-based architect Jun Igarashi constructed “Tea House.” The half-submerged structure is unique in that, amongst other obvious traits, it uses elevation as a means of separating the tea preparation area from the serving area. Paradoxically, the tea preparation area is small, dark and intimate but as the tea is moved to be served the space intrinsically unfolds, allowing for the infinitely vast environment to enter into the ceremony. It’s also worth noting that, visually, the structure is quite ironic. A motif of a home was used to create the concrete structure while the rust-colored roof doubles as a table.

Tea House by Jun Igarashi | click to enlarge

photos by Naoki Honjo

The Tea House as Architectural Subject

After Rikyu’s death the tea house, architecturally and academically speaking, entered a period of prolonged neglect. Almost all through the Edo period (1603 – 1868) the tea rooms being built were copies and imitations of what Rikyu had done. Even Japan’s first native architects largely ignored the tea house as a legitimate form of architecture. In the 1920s Japan saw the emergence of several architects who had been deeply influence by European modernism. These architects ignited a brief interest in the tea house but it was short-lived and the dry spell was once again upon us. Kenzo Tange (1913 – 2005), Japan’s leading postwar architect, once said with a hubris that can almost sound naïve, “I don’t do homes.” It was a reflection on his belief that an architect can only shine through monumental, large-scale public works (I don’t even want to know how he feels about the intimate, miniscule tea house.) By and large his position was shared by most post-war architects, and the tea house was dismissed as irrelevant.

Terunobu Fujimori – Takasugi-an (2004)

Terunobu Fujimori is perhaps one of the more academic architects working in Japan today, both conceptually and in practice. He has been deeply influenced by the tea house, which makes him a perfect subject as we wind down our discussion. In 2004 Fujimori completed a tea house titled Takasugi-an (高過庵), literally “too tall hermitage.” Firmly footed in the teachings of Rikyu, the interior is anything but spacious and is composed of humble materials like plaster and bamboo mats. Although Rikyu preferred the even smaller 2-mat space for floor area, Fujimori went with the iconic yojohan (4.5 tatami mats); just enough space for 2 guests to sit (but not stand!) Here is where, visually, the similarities cease and Fujimori’s tea house diverges from tradition. The house was erected upon 2 trees that were cut and brought in from a nearby mountain. In order to reach the room, guests must climb up the freestanding ladders propped up against the tree. And therein lies the genius of Fujimori’s work. Using paradox to guide the consciousness of his guests, he takes them from an exhilarating climb to a serene and spiritual setting high above ground.

Takasugi-an by Terunobu Fujimori | click to enlarge

photos by Edmond Sumner

The Modern Day Tea House

Beginning with the small iori hut and following it’s rise-fall-rise-fall roller coaster ride that is the history of the tea house, we now arrive in contemporary Japan where, for roughly 20 years now, the tea house has flourished as an architectural subject. Current-day homes incorporate tea houses in order to provide a physical separation between noise and tranquility, the everyday and the spiritual. The tea room can be stand-alone or connected to a home. But as we have seen, there are various rules that determine its shape and form. And much akin to the way western architects approach a bathroom or kitchen, tea houses are typically built using the best of materials. In terms of $ per Sq ft, the tea house is probably about 10 times the cost of other parts of the home.

I think it’s pretty clear that its historical context, combined with the many constraints that accompany the tea house, make it an attractive subject for architects. My designer friends have told me that they like the challenge of making something artistically beautiful that also has to perform a task. In fact, psychologists have argued that, when forced to come up with something under extreme constraints, we rely on different, often subconscious, parts of the brain.

“Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest.”
-Frank Lloyd Wright

When considering modern-day Japan, in all its denseness and proximity between homes and lack of privacy, I can’t help but recall the original intent of the tea house. Roughly 800 years ago tiny huts appeared in urban centers that looked away from the city and into itself. In essence, the tea house symbolized a piece of non-urban architecture within an urban setting. And at the same time, with all its tiny entrances, rustic ruin, ironic lack of accoutrements and paradoxical spaces that somehow balance large and small, interior and exterior, the tea house appears to contradict the very foundation that architecture was built upon. In fact, Terunobu Fujimori (Takasugi-an) has argued that, as a form of architecture, the Japanese tea house is the only arena in which paradox, irony and ruin come together in a single subject.

I’m no architect and so I’ll never really know, but I suspect that the tea house, in many shapes and forms, emulates the modern Japanese home (or perhaps it’s the other way around). The tea room, so small and intimate, represents a balance that architects strive to achieve in every residence they design. It’s through the tea house that they hone their artistic skill and flex their creative muscle. The tea house allows architects to flirt with the surreal in ways they will never be able to in traditional practice.


References/ Suggested Reading

The Contemporary Tea House by Arata Isozaki et. al. (2007)

by Wafukenchikusha (2007)

Rediscovering Rikyu and the Beginnings of the Japanese Tea Ceremony
by Herbert Plutschow (2003)



1 Based on the concept of a transparent house originally conceived in 2002, the designer will present a scaled-down model with plans to unveil the life-size structure in 2013.

2 It removed tea from its original spiritual and religious context and was a first move towards an eventual penetration in all homes/ mass appeal.

3 On April 3, 2011 the House was sold for £31,700, slightly above pre-sale estimates of £20,000 – 30,000.

4 It’s worth noting here that due to an argument stemming from difference in opinion (exact reasons remain unclear) in 1591 Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide.


  1. Great post on the tea house 🙂
    I also like architect/artist Yumi Kori’s tea house;

  2. Excellent and fascinating post. Love Terunobu Fujimori’s Takasugi-an. Though it seems some images didn’t load (or were removed?).

  3. @Aaron – thanks!

    @Masako – Kori’s tea house is gorgeous! I wish I would have discovered it sooner!

    @Mike – Thanks! You were right. Images weren’t loading properly. Issue seems to have been resolved now.

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