Tea House: An Australian Perspective

I travelled to Japan as an undergraduate student of architecture in 2017. Whilst I was there, I was a guest at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, in a 200-year-old tea house in Kyoto. I learnt a lot from the experience, not only about the intricacies of the ancient ritual, but about architecture. For what was probably the first time I understood the correlation between intended human experience and built elements. The four principles of the ceremony were meticulously expressed through the simple and modest design of the house. My fascination with this concept continued throughout my studies, the contemporary reiterations of the tea houses that have emerged over the years, by renowned architects such as Kengo Kuma, inspired me to imagine and speculate in what form would a tea house take in a Perth context. Through reflecting on my own experience, and research into the cultural practice, it’s intent and its origins, I began to intertwin these findings with the idea of a tea house within Perth CBD. I selected a site, drawing on the notions of a journey and escape. The approach to site reflected my own experience and knowledge I had gained from recent research into the subject. However, the remaining elements of this experimental project were to focus on how these ideologies would consider an Australian perspective.

With the entry to the project following the two tea ceremony principles of harmony and respect, through contemporary versions of the traditional elements. It occurred to me that perhaps the design of the space could provide an element of flexibility. The intention behind this was to allow guests to in some way, choose their own experience, whether that be to engage in a more traditional expression of the ceremony, or in a less ritualistic and more casual sense. I devised a scheme that would therefore provide all options. I imagined this project as being divided by levels. As the original tea houses were always single-story, the traditional elements are to be kept to the ground floor, with the more abstract interpretation of the spaces being on the first story.

I approached the ground floor tea houses in a similar way to the entry of the site, taking all the elements from the traditional ceremony and making adjustments only where access or health and safety were concerned. The approach to the tearoom follows the ceremony principle of respect, as guests are required to remove their shoes as a symbol of this, cabinetry is concealed within the wall. The nijirguchi is one traditional element that has been modified, usually a one-meter-high opening in which guests are required to crawl through, again as a symbol of respect. Due to the obvious issues this presents for access, this element is expressed through the form of a thickened opening, in order to still create the sense of compression. The rooms, although small and void of any frivolous elements or decoration; contain a few key elements which are integral to the ceremony and its meaning. A hearth in the centre of the room creates a focal point and allows the guests to gather around it, it is where the tea making takes place. Once inside the tearoom, the final principle of tranquillity is now the focus. The tokonoma is used to display a symbol of the season, usually a flower or art piece which depicts this. Circular openings are always included, they frame views to the garden and provide lighting, as the Japanese tea houses rarely used artificial lighting and were often dimly light intentionally. I’ve expressed this element through a circular window, as openings in the external walls would create issues for thermal comfort and practicality. Joinery for storage of tea making instruments and utensils is low in height, as the ceremony takes place from a sitting or kneeling position, this would prevent the tea master from having to stand during the ritual.

The first-floor tea rooms are where I attempted to take these traditional elements and remove the rigidity and formality from them. The traditional ceremony is meticulous in its ritualistic processes, I sought to incorporate many of the elements and their intentions, without having guests forced to follow such a regime. I imagined these spaces as a place to meet friends or colleagues. The principle of tranquillity is still very much at the forefront of the design. The four tea houses on this level create part of a rooftop space, facing views of King’s Park. This idea is influenced by Kengo Kuma’s Vancouver tea house, also situated on a rooftop with sprawling views of Coal Harbor. These spaces are intended not to be facilitated by tea masters; guests will alternatively be served by waitstaff. There are no narrow-thickened openings and guests may come and go as they please. Instead of a central hearth embedded in the floor, this element has been incorporated into the furniture, tables will instead provide tea potholders, allowing guests to serve themselves. By removing the shoe storage from the entrance, this allows guests to choose for themselves whether they wish to remove footwear. The tokonoma is still incorporated, however, this version incorporates casual seating. The circular opening is incorporated into these spaces through a skylight. These spaces are intended to provide guests with a casual sense of the traditional experience, while still incorporating the typology of a typical Australian café.

Whilst these ground and first-floor tea rooms provide guests with two different options of experiences, I thought to accommodate people who perhaps were unable to spend as much time in the space, or who were passing through the space with little time, more interested in observing the interactions with the tea ceremony than participating in it. The coffee culture in Australia, whilst very much less ritualistic than that of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is still certainly a ritual nonetheless. With most working within the CBD making it a part of their daily routine. It would therefore be imperative for the Australian perspective of a tea house to accommodate those visiting alone.

These alternative seating options focus on flexibility, whilst still incorporating aspects of the tea ceremony, in an abstract sense. Supporting columns of the space have an alternative use, as adjustable tables. The highest point of the table would be for those on the go, or who have been sitting down for long periods of time and would prefer to stand. The second would be to allow guests to sit on a chair, and the third would allow for guests to engage with this element in a more traditional sense, by sitting on the floor.

These tables were influenced by research into the intricacies of the Japanese garden, as well as the notions of Zen, which has a long history in the way this concept and its Chinese descent formed the Japanese tea ceremony. Rocks in their natural form have always been included in the gardens of tea houses. They are symbolic of Wabi, which is the concept that beauty is found in imperfection. They contribute to the fourth tea ceremony principle of tranquillity. By incorporating this form into casual seating, it allows the guests not participating in a ceremony to still experience one of the principles of the ceremony.

Although this project was only an imaginative and diagrammatic exploration of ideas, based on personal experience and research into the intricacies and history of the Japanese tea ceremony, the purpose and intent behind the cultural ritual is universal. Encouraging people to slow down and appreciate their environment is a concept that is often overlooked in design, with the worlds current focus turning to efficiency and increasing productivity. Whilst a tea ceremony in the traditional sense is not necessarily the solution to this issue, this design exercise does illustrate the ways in which architecture and design could incorporate some of the key concepts of the ceremony, to influence occupants to better connect with their environments.


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All images are the Authors own.