A Japanese tearoom is a room that is built to entertain by the performance of serving tea. The small space, laid with tatami mat flooring, further made simple by the humble materials, can also be called a hermitage. A tearoom is an example of the Japanese “wabi-sabi” aesthetic.
I designed and built “Tettei” based on a traditional Japanese Soan-style tearoom, however, it is made completely out of steel, and can be assembled and disassembled. In addition, the utensils and alcove arrangement are also steel.
It is believed that in 1586, the warrior lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered his tea master, the great Sen no Rikyu, to build a gorgeous luxury “golden tearoom”. My tearoom is the opposite of a golden tearoom.
Generally, rust is considered a negative phenomenon. However, Japanese Buddhism teaches of beauty in transience, decay and imperfection. The concept of 侘寂 (“wabi-sabi”) of which the character 寂 “sabi” is phonetically and etymologically connected to the character 錆 meaning “rust”, greatly changed Japanese tea culture, and made it the unique art form that has been for centuries.
The tearoom became not just a tranquil space, but a humble space.
In my tearoom, rust presents the beauty of transience. Literally visible on the tokonoma flooring, the centre post, the sunken hearth and the doorway, the process of aging is displayed in some of the most central parts of the tearoom. It is displayed and embraced as a symbol of beautiful impermanence but also as an aesthetic visual accent.
“Tettei” embraces both the modern, and the traditional, being a quintessentially traditional form constructed from a heavy industrial material. The back surface of chequered steel plate was used to create the tatami mat flooring of “Tettei”. 15 steel legs support the tearoom, made with scaffolding base jacks and single tube piping. An ultra-fine stainless steel mesh was used to create 3 shoji screen windows. I utilized a steel gas cylinder to create some of the tea ceremony tools. Such modern, industrial steel items blend into the traditional design of the tearoom, almost as if they are arguing with each other but also getting along. This is the harmony and disharmony, being both unaware and aware of the substance of steel.
I cut a large circle out of the wall with a diameter of 120 cm facing the guests seating area. Looking out through the great circle window from within the teahouse one sees the circle of the earth, composed of air as light as rice paper. Looking out upon the garden from inside the tearoom one sees natural, white light, but looing into the tearoom from the outside, one sees darkness. Black and white, like the Zen Buddhism “ensou” circle, causes time and space distortion. “Ensou” in Zen Buddhist belief is the basis of the tea ceremony. It represents pure enlightenment and truth, and of the entire universe symbolically represented by a circle. Perhaps, I also thought, this great circle window makes “Tettei” look like
The “tokonama” (alcove) is the most important component of a tearoom as the space represents the character of the room. Depending on the theme of the season, a hanging scroll, flower arrangement or incense burner can be displayed in the alcove. Guests sense the intention of the host from the objects displayed in the tokonoma. If you view the tokonoma of “Tettei”, you will see a hanging scroll, to the left a shoji screen window, and on the right hand alcove post, a flower arrangement. Dropping the eyes to the floor one can see a rusted steel surface, on top of which a symbolic meteorite sits enshrined in the centre.
As it is entirely made of steel, of course the hanging scroll is impossible to roll. It displays a celestial view pinpointed by the use of flat-headed, tamper-proof screws. Displayed is the unique constellation over Osaka on May 26 2012, the date of the first viewing of “Tettei”. This expresses the well-known Japanese idiom commonly associated with the tea ceremony “ichi go ichi e” (one time, one meeting). In English it is somewhat similar to the phrase “once in lifetime”. These shared moments between the guest and the host happen only once in their lifetimes, therefore the host is prepared to sincerely and wholeheartedly perform the tea ceremony, and the guests enthusiastically enjoy each unique and fleeting moment together in a beautiful communion.
The species of flower that I chose for my flower arrange- ment is, in Japanese, called “tessen” (lit. “iron wire”). The Western species is called Clematis. There is a sense of “trickery” associated with the language of this flower.
An old story in France tells of how clematis got the name “beggar’s grass”. In an attempt to obtain the mercy of passers-by, a beggar rubbed the flower all over his body. Due to toxins in the leaves and stems, his skin became red and swollen, therefore, through trickery he earned money from the locals. I was very attracted to the origin of this flower’s nickname and could even relate to such trickery myself. This flower gave a sense of my own energy and being to the tokonoma display.
Finally, the meteorite. This meteorite dropped to Earth from outer space. A meteorite with a high iron content is referred to as meteoric iron. The meteoric iron that is displayed in the tokonoma alcove is a fragment from the huge Campo del Cielo meteorite, which fell to the earth in Argentina between 4000 and 5000 years ago. To say that this is the heart of “Tettei” would not be far from the truth. Iron armour and tools made from meteoric iron which date back approx. 5000 years were unearthed in Egypt. This was the first time for humanity to encounter iron. Also, on clay plate documents from the 19th century BC, it was noted that, at this time iron was five times the value of gold. I believe they must have thought that an iron meteorite was a special gift from the sky.
With the celestial view displayed on the hanging scroll, a touch of my own spirit inside the flower arrangement and the cosmic energies encapsulated within the iron meteorite, the complexity of harmony exudes from the alcove.
Finally I will explain the naming of “Tettei”. Because the characters 鉄亭 (lit. “steel room”) are uninteresting, I chose the character 徹 with the same pronunciation but meaning “to do thoroughly” or “to be devoted to”. The title 徹亭 (lit. “devoted to-room”), in actuality is a much more suitable name for my tearoom.
Translated by Ruth MacConville & Chie Uchida.
Special thanks to TEZUKAYAMA Gallery.