I studied with Shoji Yoshida, a temple carpenter in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, and have since built a number of Japanese-style buildings in the Washington, D.C. area, but this was my first attempt to design and build a traditional teahouse. The client does not practice tea ceremony, but primarily wanted a peaceful place to escape the stresses of daily life and enjoy nature. The site is a fairly steep, wooded slope behind her house, leading down to a creek, out of sight of any other houses. I had just returned from a visit to Japan, where I had gotten interested in teahouses, so I ended up making it as close as possible to a traditional teahouse, using the traditional design method of folding paper models.
Teahouses are small, generally with a floor space of 9' x 9' or smaller, depending on the number of straw mats or tatami. They are rustic in appearance, and nothing is supposed to call attention to itself, but at the same time they are built with extraordinarily high standards of workmanship and attention to detail. One of the first Westerners to see a teahouse, a 16th century Portuguese missionary, said it "seemed to have been built by the hands of angels rather than by those of men."
While the basic features of tea ceremony architecture were established by Sen no Rikyu, the founder of the tea ceremony, teahouses are all very different in layout and appearance, and the aim is a feeling of freshness and spontaneity, reflecting aesthetic philosophy associated with the tea ceremony, which emphasizes the rough over the smooth, the irregular over the symmetrical, and the natural over the artificial. The teahouse is usually set in a garden intended to evoke the remote mountain hermitage of a Chinese landscape. Guests approach by a stone pathway, which causes them to slow down and concentrate on their surrounding. After washing at a stone water basin, they crawl through a small wooden door, symbolically shedding all social distinctions. The inside is dimly lit and bare except for the tokonoma, a raised alcove with an irregularly shaped post, usually containing a hanging scroll.
A teahouse generally has round posts and beams, fitted to each other and sitting on rocks, so that the whole building seems to be growing out of the ground. I peeled Eastern white cedar logs, kerfed them to control checking, and assembled the frame using traditional joinery. I tried to use local and recycled materials as much as possible. The roof tiles are about 60 years old and were covered with lichens.
I cut the cherry post for the tokonoma in my yard and then spent considerable time polishing it. Much of the other wood is saved from various jobs. The walls are a sandwich of 1/2" OSB and Styrofoam insulation, grooved into the posts, covered with vinyl stucco. The high ceiling and the verandah with glass doors on two sides are not really traditional in a teahouse, but I wanted to make the interior seem larger, and to open it up to the outside. In traditional Japanese architecture, the verandah, or engawa, acts as a transitional space, or bridge between inside and out.
You can sit inside with all the doors open, and listen to the rain or the sound of the creek below. I have seen raccoon, deer, and foxes, and you can watch the full moon rise above the hills on the other side of the creek. I also tried to insulate the building and weatherstrip it so the owner could use it in the winter, to sit inside and look at the snow.
I wanted to capture the feeling of a traditional teahouse, which provides a kind of sacred space, free from ordinary concerns and in harmony with its natural surroundings. I also wanted to make something that would respond to the needs of the client and fit the site, using ordinary materials as much as possible. I am pleased with how it came out, but the whole process took much longer than I anticipated. It became clear to me why authentically built Japanese teahouses are among the most expensive buildings in the world per square foot.