In 1993 the Japanese architect Shigeru Uchida designed three cube-like teahouses that were easy to assemble, dismantle, and move. The differences between the three boxes--each roughly 8 feet square and 7 feet high--lay in Uchida's treatment of the defining element of all Japanese structures: the lattice wall. According to Uchida, what distinguishes Japanese from Western building is the notion of kekkyu-- boundaries. These range in hierarchy from a painted line or a stone at a threshold to a solid fortress wall. In between these is the lattice, a perforated barrier through which a passerby may catch a glimpse of private acts. Among his three teahouses, Ji-an ("house of perception") is an elegant patchwork of square and vertical grids, Gyo-an ("house of memories") has slats intersecting in a tangle of triangles through which the night sky appears as through a dizzying mesh of stars, and So-an ("house of composition") features gridded wall with a vertical emphasis calmly alternating with walls composed purely o f squares. The interiors glow from the golden wood of which they are made. As the late literary and cultural critic Roland Barthes once wrote, "Wood...produces a world of objects easy on the eyes, already human by their substance, resistant but not brittle, constructible but not plastic." Though strikingly modern, Uchida's structures are redolent of what Barthes called "a more vegetal age."
This year, Uchida's teahouses are traveling to museums and design centers throughout Germany. Their curator is Georg Wawerla, a designer in Kiel, who worked with Uchida and the late Aldo Rossi on the Mochiko Hotel in Japan and now markets the teahouses through his own company, Studio 38. Why bring (and sell) teahouses to Germans? Wawerla's caravan of the wood structures is intended to focus German attention on what he calls "reductivism" (the vernacular form of minimalism) as a decorating principle, the only principle Wawerla finds intact in Germany's post-Bauhaus, post-World War II architecture and interiors.
When Dutch ships sailing from China and Japan first brought tea to Europe in 1610 social life, most indelibly in England, was transformed. The beverage revolutionized ceramic production throughout Europe by creating a demand for new pots and cups based on Asian export wares. But tea (first used by the Chinese in about the 8th century as medicine) failed to doctor Europe's essentially mundane concept of social intercourse, though commercial teahouses proliferated and the drink was elaborately served in aristocratic homes. According to Uchida, the great 16th-century tea master Rikyu intended the tea ceremony to lead the participants' minds unconsciously to "the realm of supernatural necessity. The principle of the tea ceremony is often said to be [that] one meets another only once in a lifetime. Therefore, one must do one's best to appreciate the meeting." Paraphrasing Rikyu, Uchida notes that tea cures one's thirst not just for liquid but also for soul, for relationship. And the building in which we slake the se thirsts is, like all traditional Japanese art--be it woodcut, calligraphic, or ceramic-a material cipher enclosing a silent emptiness at the center of things.
Is the arrival of Uchida's teahouses in Germany simply one more instance of the kekkyu of nations, cultures, or styles being erased from the globe by the haste and superficiality of so much information? Georg Wawerla is too conscious of design history to accept that analysis; he relates Uchida's simple forms to the utopian worker housing created by the Expressionist architect Bruno Taut in the 1920s. Taut himself spent several years in Japan and published The Japanese House and Its Life (1937), which compared the Japanese wooden country domicile with its counterparts in Scandinavia, Germany, and Eastern Europe. Building was for Taut a primal, mystical occasion to redeem modern life, most famously embodied in his faceted glass pavilion for the Deutsche Werkbund exhibition 1914 in Cologne, an attempt, not unlike the Japanese lattice or shoji screen, to open up walls without entirely transgressing boundaries. A teahouse in Deutschland looks back not only to Meissen, but to German modernism's earliest impulse, t he first Bauhaus at Dessau, where Gropius's co-founder, the Swiss symbolist painter Johannes Itten, wore a monk's robe to teach color theory as a form of religion, in his case, theosophy. Meanwhile, the latticed and lanterned Glasgow tearooms designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (also a theosophist) had been introduced to German designers by the Berlin architect Hermann Muthesis in his 1904 book The English House. Under Walter Gropius and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Bauhaus ideology shifted from spirit to function, but not without a lingering perfume of the meeting between mysticism, craftsmanship, and faith in the humanistic possibilities of technology.
Wawerla notes that response to a short piece on the teahouses in Wallpaper magazine last year has been immense, resulting in orders (at roughly $16,000 per house) from "some very interesting people, many of them in the United States." He and Uchida want to set the exhibition in motion here. Since the average American now moves every three years, owners can pack up their sanctuaries along with the sofa and dining room set. But will those steely Miele built-ins bought so dear prove as mobile?