The Tea House Go-an by Terunobu Fujimori: The Tokyo Pavilion 2021

For Japanese architects, interpreting traditional Japanese styles has been a thorny issue because these traditions were established outside the context of “architecture,” a Western subject deeply rooted in long and rich Western history. Naturally, most Japanese architects do not design purely traditional Japanese buildings. But Terunobu Fujimori seems to have a unique ability to embrace traditional approaches, and maybe it’s because he is an architectural historian turned architect; he has a vast knowledge of how houses and buildings have evolved around the world over thousands of years. He is able to re-imagine traditional Japanese ideas to make them totally relevant in the context of modern architecture while appreciating the original intent. Chashitu (the tea house or tea room) is one of the traditional Japanese styles that Fujimori frequently re-invents.

Fujimori designed the “Go-an” for the Pavilion Tokyo 2021. Although it is a chashitsu (traditional tea room), there is nothing really “traditional” about it. But that’s the gist of chashitsu which often boldly or radically ignores practices or theories to build traditional Japanese buildings in order to help maximize the philosophical objectives of the tea ceremony. Probably that’s the reason why Fujimori likes designing them.

The tea ceremony is far more than just drinking tea; it’s about capturing precious moments in transient seasons to re-discover/appreciate the world we live in. The host chooses a theme that highlights the seasonality, for example appreciating a seasonal flower or a September full moon, and arranges everything based on that from the room setting, the tools to brew tea to deserts served. During the event, both host and guests follow strictly set sequences which are used to keep their awareness keen so that they could experience even subtle beauty/moments that emerge from subdued conversations or interactions.

In order to maximize the unique tea ceremony experience, chashitsu had to be a vehicle that could unleash people’s senses. The ultimate solution from the Japanese tea masters centuries ago was to create an extremely small room/hut that was simple, minimal, provisional and bucolic. Such an environment would force people inside to directly connect with the surrounding environment at a profound level, making them keenly aware of the elements that constitute our world.

As you may have noticed, one of the important characteristics of chashitsu is that it’s a vehicle to take you to a different world – our inner universe. The nijiri-guchi (the small, low-hanging entrance that forces you to crawl to get in as if you are going into a dark tunnel) is one of the devices that the chashitsu invented to amplify that effect. The Go-an has a nijiri-guchi, but as Fujimori also likes putting his chashitsu up high – another way to highlight the different world-ness of tea ceremony – he has also added a ladder that guests have to climb after the nijiri-guchi to get to the tea room on the second floor. 

Unlike a typical chashitsu, Fujimori’s ones are usually open and allow abundant sunlight. He says that the view is different when seen from chashitsu, and that’s the beauty of it.