The building continues the ancient tea ceremony tradition in the contemporary Heisei era, the period that began in 1989 with the death of Emperor Hirohito and the succession to the throne of Akihito. In fact, 2008 is year 20 according to the Japanese calendar.
The teahouse is located inside an area belonging to an important temple in Kawagoe. Architect Ken Yokogawa won the competition with his magnificent project that mingles the built environment and natural landscape, developing a theme close to the architect’s heart: sensai. The word signifies refinement, elegance, sophistication, and delicacy, but also the simplicity from which springs perfect beauty. A key concept of traditional Japanese architecture, sensai is here re-interpreted in contemporary mode with a programme steeped in a sense of proportion, judicious use of materials, and sensitivity for the relations between vertical and horizontal planes, solid and void, interior and exterior.
Every architectural element has to meet the prerequisite of elegance; its presence must be justified by purpose. Choice of materials is of the essence. All materials must have a “character”, explains Shozo Baba, a Japanese critic; materials should not imitate others since they will not transmit the same tactile sensation as the original. Materials must be what they appear, and if possible, should not be mere surface cladding.
Belonging to the same tradition, Ken Yokogawa uses terms like “refinement” and “sophistication” to describe his work. Everything is minutely and painstakingly thought through.
Although the teahouse is part of a temple complex, being located in a sanctuary garden, it is also a kekkai, a Buddhist expression indicating a specific, definite space. The confines of this space are the cedar wood clad concrete walls, reflective pond and wooden lattice. Areas of fair face concrete have been realised with cedar formwork that has left its fine grain tracery on the walls. A travertine path (roji) connects exterior and interior. It is crossed at right angles by a second walkway in crushed stone that leads to the house, which is reached by walking across randomly placed stones taken from the garden.
The bowl (tsukubai) in which the visitor washes his hands before going into the room is in concrete with a light-reflecting glass lining. The reflective pool has been raised about 30 cm to avoid flooding the surrounding garden and trees that effortlessly embrace the new architecture.
Inside, the traditional tea ceremony protocol (sado) is respected even if new materials and different interpretations have been adopted. The tokonoma, the space dedicated to a painting, calligraphed parchment, ikebana, or significant decorative element is here re-interpreted as a flat glass surface and walls forming the backdrop for a perforated Japanese paper screen.
The room’s central column is in aluminium flanked by 3-D elements in four types of wood created by a high precision (NC router) cutter. Each element is laden with tradition symbolism but at the same time contemporary for the choice of materials and technologies used.
Following tradition, there are two entrances: the service entrance and the nijiriguchi, or main entrance. Being 66 cm high and 63 cm wide, each threshold obliges guests to bend double to enter - a symbol of the absolute equality that reigns among all teahouse visitors.
The samurai had to leave their swords outside before entering a place where whatever heard had to be immediately forgotten on returning to one’s allocated role in society.