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Uji-An Teahouse : Arata Isozaki :1992


The death of Arata Isozaki in December of last year sparked a surge of interest in his work. I noticed a huge spike in visitors to my post dated 5 February 2021 on Oita Prefectural Library. This post features one of Isozaki’s lesser-known buildings, the Uji-An Teahouse, located in the Gotenyama garden adjacent to the Tokyo Marriott hotel in

Shinagawa.



Origins

The design first appeared as a ‘Thatched Hut Folly’ and was prepared for an exhibition entitled Follies: Architecture for the Late-Twentieth-Century Landsacape held at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York and the James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles in 1983. Isozaki suggested that: ‘In many ways the small teahouses scattered throughout Japanese gardens are comparable to the follies found in Western landscape architecture’.[1] 'Follies’ are generally defined as pointless buildings, created as eye-catching objects, and it is unclear why Isozaki drew a comparison with Japanese teahouses, other than the fact that both are usually located within a man-made landscape. The writer and broadcaster, Gillian Darley suggested that Isozaki was commenting on what he perceived to be a Western view of the tea ceremony as a pointless exercise, but doesn't explain why he might have thought that.[2]


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992 : teahouse on right, guest waiting bench on left


In any event, the design was resurrected in 1991, when Toshio Hara asked Isozaki to design a teahouse in the Gotenyama garden that had been owned by the Hara family. The garden was adjacent to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, a Western style building designed by Jin Watanabe* and constructed in 1938. It had been the Hara family home until it was requisitioned by the U.S occupying force after the war for use as an officers’ residence. It was returned to the family at the end of the occupation, but they did not move back in, and Hara converted it into a museum in 1979.


*Watanabe, also designed the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park (see post dated July 6, 2017)

Hara Museum : Jin Watanabe : 1938 : main entrance


The museum was closed in 2021 and the building has since been demolished. By that time, however, a new building, Hara Museum ARC, designed by Isozaki and opened in 1988, had been constructed in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture.


Hara was born in Tokyo in 1935, studied at Gakushin University and at Princeton, and in 1977 established the Foundation Arc-en-Ciel. He has served on a number of international committees, including MOMA in New York, Tate Gallery in London, Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and has received numerous awards, including the French Medal of the Legion of Honour. His great grandfather was Rokuro Hara, a prominent Meiji era banker and industrialist who collected Early Modern Japanese paintings.



Design

The drawings prepared for the 1983 exhibition in New York were presented as abstract silk screen prints. The building is presented in ‘planometric’ view, where both plan and elevation are seen simultaneously and straight on rather than the more legible, 45-degree ‘axonometric’ view. Although based on accurate representations of the plan and elevations, the overall effect, especially when the roof is removed to reveal the internal plan and elevations, and individual parts are coloured, is like an abstract assemblage or collage of building elements, and that is clearly the effect that Isozaki wished to achieve. His aim was ‘not to create an “integrated” style but to revive the centuries-old tradition of the tea ceremony, in which the tea master arranges objects … to be contemplated and appreciated for their aesthetic appeal’.[3]


The prints can be viewed here: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/404707


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992


The original images show a rectangular building surmounted by a steep, hipped, thatched roof. The building as realised is also rectangular, but overlaid with a more gently-sloping, standing-seam, lead roof that is circular in plan. Other elements that have been retained are clearly visible in the original images: external stone walls, a curving glass corner, a wavy metal wall, a timber column, a timber trunk and branch. The building, like the original images, is an assemblage of elements, some old and some new, some traditional and some modern, some Japanese and some Western: limestone walls, wavy titanium partition, a small stainless steel entrance door (nijiriguchi), lead roofing, wooden floors, tatami mats, paper screens, and an ancient cedar panel and camellia wood post retrieved from the Yakushi-ji temple in Nara when the main hall was rebuilt in the 1970s following a fire.


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992 : a circular roof oversails the rectangular building


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992 : curving glass corner


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992 : a small, stainless-steel door (nijiriguchi) forces guests into a humble position as they enter


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992 : an assemblage of elements: limestone walls; wavy titanium partition; ancient camellia-wood column from Yakushi-ji temple


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992 : guest waiting bench



Significance

The Uji-an teahouse may not exhibit the wabi-cha, humble and impoverished aesthetic that is described in my post of April 25, 2018 and which has come to form our image of ‘the Japanese teahouse’, but its means of procurement followed a well-trodden and traditional path. Teahouses have always been commissioned by wealthy and socially well-connected individuals who wish to be patrons of the arts, and who engage those they see as arbiters of culture and taste to provide the designs.


If Hara was the modern-day equivalent of the enlightened imperial patron, Isozaki clearly saw himself as a latter-day Kobori Enshu, the tea master who ‘without necessarily discovering anything new, confronted all the techniques and accumulated knowledge of tea, freely selected his favourites, and regrouped these into a rather daring new system…’[4]


That was Isozaki’s description of Enshu; replace the word ‘tea’ with ‘architecture’ and it is hard to escape the feeling that Isozaki was also describing how he wished to be remembered.


Uji-An teahouse : Arata Isozaki : 1992 : approach



All images by John Barr unless otherwise noted.

© John Barr 2023



[1]Isozaki, Arata, Arata Isozaki: Architecture 1960-1990, Rizzoli, New York, 1991, pp 146-7 [2] Darley, Gillian, ‘Tea Ceremonial: Tea House, Tokyo, Japan, by Arata Isozaki and Associates’, The Architectural Review, 10 May 1994

[3] Isozaki, p.146

[4] Isozaki, Arata, Japan-ness in Architecture, MIT Press , Cambridge, 2011, p.266

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