Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Contemporary Tea Houses

Recently, I got a copy of The Contemporary Tea House: Japan’s Top Architects Redefine a Tradition by Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando, and Terunobu Fujimori, and I’ve been eating it up.

I should preface this by saying that anybody who studies tea ceremony – and probably some people who don’t! – inevitably start dreaming about having their own tea space. Regardless of whether we have the room or the money, or even if we have a tearoom or tea house already, we all have a plan in the back of our mind of what we would do if…

The great thing about this book is that it gives us all fuel to dream. The premise is pretty much what the title implies – several very well-known and talented architects re-envision tearooms. Some of them are in urban settings, like the loft in an apartment, or even the roof of a house in the city. Some of them are out in the country, built to blend with their surroundings. Some of them are very modern, made of concrete or plastic, while others are made of the more traditional plaster and wood.

I’m not saying that I like all of them. One of them looks like it was tastefully placed in a public restroom. (No names, but if you read the book, you’ll be able to pick it out.) And even the ones that I do like are only marginally usable.

For example, my favorite is Takasugi-an, which is literally a tea house on trees. Take a look here. The house is nineteen feet in the air, and according to the book, it “sways as much as one would expect when looking at it from outside.” I love the idea, but can you imagine trying to climb up that ladder in a kimono? Carrying tea utensils? And once you’re inside the tearoom, things don’t get much better. Because of the way the space is arranged, if you wanted to do a traditional tea ceremony, you’d have to sit with your back to the guests.

That’s a pretty common feature of the tearooms in the book – about half of them would require some major adaptation to use them for tea ceremony. But that’s okay, because practicality isn’t the point. The point is to inspire people to do what they can with the space they have, and to really challenge people’s image of how a tearoom should look. In the end, they share one commonality – a sense of tranquility and space, a place where you can go to sit and enjoy tea.

Anyhow, I highly recommend the book if you’re interested in tearooms, or even if you just want to look at some pretty pictures.