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Tea ceremonial: Tea house, Tokyo, Japan, by Arata Isozaki & Associates

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Arata Isozaki’s tea pavilion in central Tokyo unites modern and traditional materials in a timeless celebration of ritual

This piece was republished online in March 2019, after Arata Isozaki won the 2019 Pritzker prize

Key to all that is traditional in Japanese life, the tea pavilion is – ideally – sited in a leafy garden, often overlooking water. A miniature, exquisite stucture, its every detail must be tied into a complex and, to Occidental eyes, somewhat mystifying ritual. Each small activity, the washing of hands preparatory to entering, waiting, sitting and finally taking tea, is isolated, defined and made significant. So, too, the parts of the building. Transparency and opacity, flexibility and permanence are expressed in the architecture, reflecting the ceremony and its gentle and unchanged order of events.

The tea ritual defies and yet acknowledges the passing of time, thereby imbuing it with a greater significance. Arata lsozaki’s new tea house is named ‘Uji’ which is a Zen reference to the profundity of time, appropriately enough, for as lsozaki puts it ‘to have tea is to pay close attention to the time of the very moment’.

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Tea house by Arata Isozaki in Tokyo

In the early 1980s, lsozaki was asked to contribute to an exhibition in the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. The brief was to design a folly. Surprisingly, lsozaki decided that the apparent pointlessness of the tea ceremony, at least seen from afar, suggested that a tea pavilion could be designated a form of folly. He constructed his model for a pavilion for the exhibition, and then, years later, included it in his retrospective exhibition in Los Angeles and Japan.

Finally the exhibition design was dusted off, at the invitation of Toshia Hara and built at full scale in a small public garden adjoining the massive Gotenyama Hills development owned by Mori Building Inc, who initiated the project. The garden, which had once belonged to the Hara family, had been the site of a tea house. The new tea house itself is entirely private, but so law­ abiding are the Japanese that it is merely demarcated by a low bamboo fence.

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Tea house by Arata Isozaki in Tokyo

Since the form of the tea house follows such a rigid set of rules, as to the ordering of space, the use of materials and the very form of the building, the challenge for lsozaki was the discreet introduction of new materials, touches of the contemporary to reanimate the formula – what lsozaki terms the ‘aesthetics of combination’. The palette of new materials must, it was ruled, remain limited – reflecting the balance of old and new within the tea ceremony itself. (The ‘new’ is the unique nature of the moment and the immediate reality of the guest taking tea that day). Thus the curving internal wall of titanium, the limestone exterior masonry, the steel shutters and eaves detail, the lead roofing and the panel in the takonoma, the contemplative niche, all represent contemporary additions.

From the traditional repertoire come chestnut wood floors, an ancient yacu cedar panel and camellia wood post (taken from a recently dismantled temple), the unfired earth panels, the tatami mats and Japanese paper screens, both for walls and as a filter for ceiling light. The meeting is a perfect one; the textures of matte paper, silky metal, finely finished sandstone masonry and opaque glass are almost one. The tones are warm and the light is soft, mostly diffused and natural. Even shorn of ritual, the space is hauntingly beautiful.

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Tea house by Arata Isozaki in Tokyo

The major division of space is between the tiny tearoom and the larger screened-off space in which the master prepares the tea for presentation to the handful of guests. The height of the building was determined by the ‘mood’ of the tea ceremony while the master craftsman, Sotoji Nakamura from Kyoto, whom lsozaki invited to undertake the construction, was empowered to choose and adjust dimensions. Here the architect, even as grand a figure as lsozaki, stands shoulder to shoulder with the great craftsman builder – each a master in his own field.

Outside is a sheltered waiting area, protected by a curving metal roof, and a place for hand washing. The building is set into the finely planted landscape with enormous care and every inch of paving and path has been detailed with the same perfectionist eye that has been applied to the tea house itself.

lsozaki has proved that the compatability of materials old and new, united in a traditional pattern, can be effortlessly achieved. The Uji tea house is exquisite, true to its origins and yet entirely of its time.

Tea house

Architect: Arata Isozaki & Associates

Photography: Katsuaki Furudate