Style & Design

Kou-an glass teahouse gives tradition clarity

by Sachiko Tamashige

Special To The Japan Times

Tokujin Yoshioka is a familiar name in the design world, but it’s hard to say which discipline he belongs to. His oeuvre spans products, including a mobile phone, watch and chandelier; architecture and interiors, such as his Rainbow Church (2010, 2013) and Swarovski Ginza (2008) display; even artworks like his “Rainbow Chair” (2007) that went on show at the 2014 Venice Biennale. He is probably best-known for a functional artwork, the “Honey-pop” (2000) chair — a 1-cm thick wad of 120 sheets of paper that when pulled apart like a concertina reveals a honeycomb-structured chair.

Yoshioka has proved that a design doesn’t need to be categorized. Besides winning numerous international design awards, four of his works, including “Honey-pop,” are on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while his 2013-14 “Crystallize” solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, was a multidisciplinary showcase of works.

At the Tokyo exhibition, his “Rainbow Church” — a giant architectural installation of 500 crystal prisms that refract light into rainbow-colored shards across the room — exemplified Yoshioka’s affinity with light, and in April this year, he brought a similarly stunning luminous structure to Kyoto.

“Kou-an,” is a transparent glass teahouse, which has been installed in front of Seiryu-den, the magnificent 220-meter tall viewing platform of the Tendai Buddhist temple Shoren-in that sits atop the Shogunzuka mound.

The entire Kyoto cityscape can be viewed from Shogunzuka, which is believed to be the site from which Emperor Kanmu (737-806) looked over the land and decided to move the nation’s capital there. Earlier this spring, Yoshioka also stood in this historical spot as he explained why he has brought ” Kou-an” to the ancient capital.

The design for this project was first presented at Glasstress 2011 at the 54th Venice Art Biennale. Why have you brought it to Kyoto, rather than keep it in Italy or elsewhere?

When I happened to come here last December, it was cold and snowing. I saw the panoramic view of Kyoto from the Seiryu-den, and its mysterious atmosphere enchanted me. I was taken by the place’s power and was convinced that this was the site I’ve been looking for.

Normally you would find a tea house in the Japanese garden, but I didn’t want a conventional setting. I wanted a location that had a special energy and would enable us integrate with nature.

So it wasn’t commissioned or requested by the temple?

No. “Kou-an” is my own project. It took me more than a decade to complete since I conceived the architectural plan of (a similar project) the Transparent Japanese House in 2002. Normally, I work for a client as a designer, but I also set themes to experiment with for my own projects. The “Honey-pop” chair and this glass tea house (are examples). These two ways of working expand horizons and feed off each other.

What were you aiming for with this project?

There is no tatami mat or tokonoma (alcove that usually displays a scroll and flowers), things you usually would expect in a tea house, in the “Kou-an.” I didn’t want to create a modern version of the traditional tea house, one that followed all sorts of rules. Instead, I questioned how the tea ceremony developed and why it is appreciated in such a particular way in Japan. I thought over its fundamental elements.

The purpose of the project was to grasp the essence of Japanese perception, aesthetics and tradition that converge to become the culture of tea. I have always been interested in the Japanese conception of nature, which is characterized by a distinctive spatial perception that can be perceived in the tea ceremony.

Through this project, I wanted to reveal the origins of Japanese culture, which exist in our experience of sensations — a sensing of the truth of nature.

Is that why you chose to use glass?

I think that glass is the best material to maximize the effects of light. The ultimate goal of tea ceremony, I think, is to achieve a oneness with nature. Together, Italian craftsmen and I developed an extremely clear transparent glass, so that visitors can appreciate the quality of daylight and the structure’s surroundings.

Light is the key (for us) to focus, and clear glass enabled me to design a space in which visitors can feel (as though they are a) part of nature by experiencing the fluctuations in light, its changes with weather, time of day and season.

Though you are highly conscious of the quality and texture of materials, your design concepts focus on the intangible. Why is that?

What I wanted to achieve through ” Kou-an” was to “design” time and light. The most important thing about design to me is the experience, not the form or style. I am more interested in the aura or energy of a thing rather than the thing itself. So, I always want to get away from objects and to transcend the materialistic world when I design.

Do you have plans to move on to another theme?

Smell. I would like to design an original perfume — from the (aromatic) contents to the bottle. Once I get an idea, I can’t help but make it.

Kou-an is open daily until spring 2016; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Entry is ¥500. For more information on the structure, visit www.tokujin.com. For more information on the Seiryu-den, visit www.shorenin.com.