Defying convention at every turn, the ‘kitschy’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ designs of Japanese architectural historian-turned architect Terunobu Fujimori belies the level of understanding garnered to achieve this particular blend of architectural alchemy. Like an eco-warrior from the post-modern 1980’s gone wild, here, form not only doesn’t follow function; in some cases ‘function’ for all intents and purposes, has been left to bite the dust.
How else could one explain, tea houses hanging in the air, suspended by cables or perched on top of tree trunks that are inaccessible except by lugging a 20 foot ladder across a field? Unless of course one considers the ‘higher’ function as the real function; the traditional Japanese requirement to struggle (nijiriguchi) in order to get to a place of worship. Which calls for thought; could these works be seen as a critique on the limitations of modernism, the narrow view on what’s considered ‘function’ or ‘functional’ or something that ‘works’? However, Japanese tea-rooms and tea-houses are not exactly places of worship, but more of a hybrid, contemplative, pseudo-spiritual event so there is some ambiguity here.
In the Takasugi-An a.k.a. Too High Tea House, the image of a skewed, orthogonal ginger bread house raised on tree trunks 30 feet off the ground, defies architectural typological convention; children’s fantasies aren’t taken very seriously in the world of elite architecture which is why tree houses never make it to the cover of such magazines. To make it worse, Fujimori’s design drawings are made to look childish, like a child did them.
But the image of the Takasugi-An, of a weightless stubby house floating in the air on top of tree trunks and the fantasy of weightlessness, is where there is convergence with high modern architecture. All the other parts are derived from traditional Japanese architecture and culture, albeit in more modest portions.
If anyone has ever wondered why the wood in traditional Japanese houses were always so dark, the Yakisugi Charcoal House (2007) demonstrates another lost idea from Japanese history; the charring of wooden boards which apparently seals it from water and fire. The trick however is to burn them brief enough without damaging their structural integrity and at lengths less than 6 feet so they wouldn’t warp.
Apparently Fujimori was able to devise his own method of charring longer lengths at more precise amounts of time to have a uniform effect without the warping; the whole act of which is another break from conventional modern building wisdom which strives for efficiency and safety for more productivity. But this method is neither efficient nor safe, and is not particularly ‘pleasant’ (touching it would turn one’s hands would turn black) which begs another question; why would Fujimori be so adamant about using it?
The interior of the Yakisugi Charcoal House (2007) extends the earlier ideas of climbing up ladders to otherwise inaccessible places, with bedrooms now being accessed via specially made ladders through a literal ‘hole in the wall’, tree house style.
The tea room is also cantilevered at a proportion that depicts that fantasy of weightlessness, as does this little chimney/tower feature floating 5 feet over the ground in the middle of the side wall.
The Irisentei Tea House (Flying Mud Boat) (2010) is another BYOL (bring your own ladder) tea house, but it is a little bit different from from the Takasugi-An in that its round, egg shaped form makes it look like a futuristic flying ‘Flintstones’ house. Which is something Fujimori describes in interviews as a ‘Neolithic International Style’.
What’s interesting about the ‘Stork House’ in Raiding, Austria is that the element that was supposed to be elevated and suspended, the tea room, has been replaced by a house/place for birds to nest in. While it is unclear whether any birds actually do nest there, the gesture raises a question, in the cases where human and animal habitats overlap, which is whether sanctuaries can be built for the co-habitation with wild-life in our communities.
“I’m not making these works to succeed the Japanese tradition. I decided that I would never do two things; I would never assume the western or Japanese typology, nor the modern typology.” Terunobu Fujimori 2016
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony, I must say, is not easily understood. Is it a spiritual event, a social event or a time or corporate reminiscing of the past? If its spiritual, there aren’t any idols around, if social, people don’t seem to talk much at all. The natural surroundings do seem to be part of it, if only before and afterwards. In fact according to the official definition, it is all of the above. Spiritual without any overt iconography or gestures, a time of deep social bonding without any words being said and strict adherence to rules laid down centuries ago as a sort of anchor to cultural traditions. It is another form of ‘Japanese-ness’ which helps people reconnect to their identity.
While eschewing the formal arrangements of the traditional tea house (and ceremony), Fujimori has in fact adhered to its deeper, not so obvious, spiritual and social aspects. The getting on-your-knees and sliding-in gesture of the nijiriguchi has been replaced with the carrying, hoisting and climbing up of a 20′ ladder on the side of a mountain but its effects are the same; after all these physical tasks one should be pretty much free from worldly concerns, prior to entering the tea house space. Once inside, the formality of the traditional ceremony has been replaced with a casual, lighthearted approach which, depending on his mood during the day, would achieve a similar bonding effect.
But what to make of all the other aspects of Fujimori’s designs, where just as in the design of the traditional tea ceremony, there are so many apparent contradictions? Like not wanting to succeed the Japanese tradition or assume Japanese typology, yet the elevated tea house is somewhat reminiscent of the image of wooden Shinto temple scaled models on the shoulders of dancing men during festive occasions, and the usage of tree trunks as building columns which is similar to that found in traditional Japanese Imperial houses. He doesn’t want to be seen as doing something overtly ‘Japanese’, yet he uses rather peculiar elements of traditional Japanese architecture and peculiar technology in the case of charring wooden boards.
In interviews he has stated he doesn’t like the ‘fairy-tale’ quality of the Flying Mud Boat, yet most of his buildings have this ‘fairy-tale aesthetic’ to them, not to mention the childish-looking drawings associated. But these designs are somewhat of a rejection of the modern typology, with the usage of ladders as part of the circulation and the overt celebration of nature, even if he cheekily calls it the ‘Neolithic International Style’. Overrall, he has taken elements of traditional Japanese architecture and fused it with an almost pre-historic appreciation of nature to create his own particular style which happens to be a voice harking back to something fundamentally human and what’s required to sustain life.