In Japan, there is a strange building type called teahouses, or more precisely, soan-style (i.e. thatched cottage-style) teahouses, dedicated to the drinking of tea.

Inviting a few close friends, the host himself prepares them tea. While enjoying the taste of the tea, the guests appreciate the tea utensils starting with the bowl in which the tea is served as well as the calligraphy and flowers on display. The expressions of appreciation should be perceptive and concise. At times four hours are spent in which things that delight the eye and the palate are enjoyed under a condition of psychological tension. Both the host and the guests must be on their mettle.


First of all, the building is small. The space is ordinarily four-and-a-half tatami mats (2.7 meters square in size or 7.29 square meters in floor area) and can be as small as two mats (1.8 meters square or 3.24 square meters). The ceiling height is low. The entrance, called nijiriguchi, is only about 65 centimeters high and 60 centimeters wide, requiring a person to crawl through. A window, covered with a shoji screen, provides light but no outside view. The space is like a little cave.

Simply making the space small in size is not enough. This is what makes it difficult to design for an architect. The architectural space must be full of interest as befits a container for an intensely experienced duration of time.

The teahouse has been much studied and discussed, but the focus has mostly been on its extremely small size and its design, which is intended to be full of interest. I find, not only these two points, but the presence of fire notable. A hearth is always set in the floor, even when the space is only two tatami mats in size, and water is heated over a charcoal fire. Fire led humankind to begin dwelling in cliffside holes or under branches gathered together in fields, and ever since then it has continued to occupy a central place in dwellings. In this case, fire is introduced into the middle of an extremely small space.

Being small, full of interest, and equipped with fire, the teahouse can be said to be a crystallization of the architecture of humankind.

Teahouses are also interesting from the point of view of the relationship between architecture and human beings.

It was not architects or master carpenters but devotees so enamoured of the tea ceremony they became professional tea masters who originally designed teahouses for themselves and their friends. Being amateurs in building design, unable to read architectural drawings, they devised simple models called okoshiezu made by assembling paper three-dimensionally. Using these models, they studied design problems such as the location of the nijiriguchi or the hearth and the defect of different ceiling arrangements.

A teahouse was something one designed for oneself.


The way the host conducts himself on receiving guests in his completed teahouse is also important. First, there is the work of preparing the tea. The host goes about his work, moving about and using his hands, while the guests watch. He adjusts the charcoal fire, and when the hot water has reached just the right temperature, he puts powdered tea into the tea bowl with the tea scoop (chushaku), adds hot water from the kettle with the water ladle (hishaku), and mixes this with a bamboo tea whisk (chasen). The host, who until then has faced the hearth, now turns toward the guests.

This series of steps for preparing tea used to be taken outside the tearoom until the small soan-style teahouse came into being. A servant prepared the tea in a separate place such as a kitchen and carried it to the tearoom, where the host served the guests. The drinking of tea, which was permitted only to hosts of high status, was entirely separate from the preparing of tea, a task performed by servants of low status.

That changed entirely with the creation of the soan-style teahouse. Fire was introduced into the middle of the tearoom, and the host himself began to prepare the tea in front of guests.

This might have been the influence of Zen. The tea masters who contributed to the development of the soan-style teahouse all had experience in the practice of Zen meditation. Zen-sect temples first introduced the custom of drinking tea from China, and from there it spread to society in general. Zen holds that profound meditation and enlightenment are achieved through, not words, but labor. This idea that spiritual elevation should be attained through, not through language, but the body was also held by the Cistercian order in medieval Europe.

The guests watch the host's movements in front of the fire. First, how is his posture? Is he rock steady? Is his back straight? A person's habitual state of mind is revealed by his seated posture.

Samurai are said to have judged an opponent's skill or strength by the way he stood with his sword. Tea in the period in which the soan-style teahouse came into being was supported by samurai who themselves wielded swords in battle. Drinking tea was for them a way of relaxing between fighting.

Those who had been trained, in situations in which they put their lives at risk, to speak and comprehend through their bodies would gather together around a fire and pass around a tea bowl. Because the space was small, architecture was wrapped closely- nearly as closely as clothing- around the human body.

Architecture, objects, fire, bodies, words - those five elements form a perfect whole in a small space, and an intensely experienced time is passed.

Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) established this world of tea. He was born in Japan when Michelangelo was 47. Rikyu took up the challenge of minimalizing the world of tea, making the space as small as two tatami mats in size. As for the tea bowl, the centerpiece of the tea aesthetic, he did away with colored bowls made with a wheel and instead used black, hand-formed bowls of so-called raku ware. One is reminded of how Mies in his last years created skyscrapers that were square all-black boxes.

Rikyu was the tea-ceremony officiant for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the most powerful leader of the time who was himself a lover of tearooms covered in gold-leaf. However, Hideyoshi suddenly sentenced Rikyu to death, and the latter committed ritual suicide.

The world of tea established by Rikyu in an age ravaged by war has remained unchanged for 400 years to this day. That world has today become an organization with several tens of thousands of disciples led by the 14th head of the school in a line of succession that began with Rikyu. The school is still based on the minimalism of Rikyu, who achieved two extremes (namely tearooms of two tatami mats and black tea bowls) and preserves the forms established by his ascendants.


I have not had any connection to that formalized world of the tea ceremony, but since becoming interested in teahouses, I have created seven of them. Even my smallest ones, Ichiya-tei (One-Night Teahouse) and Takasugi-an (Too-High Teahouse), are in floor area slightly larger than the equivalent of three tatami mats and cannot compare to the two mats Rikyu achieved. Architects such as Arata Isozaki and Tadao Ando have also tackled the teahouse, but no matter who designs it, it becomes a teahouse and nothing more than a teahouse.


Excerpt from Fujimori Terunobu Architecture, written by Fujimori

So! What would your teahouse look like? Please invite me for tea when you build one!