Why Kyoto’s Shokin-tei is an Architects Delight

Shokin-tei, Japan

A traditional teahouse built at the dawn of the Edo period captures the imagination of architect Brit Andresen, an emeritus professor at the University of Queensland.

The Shokin-tei is one of four tearooms set in a meticulous garden at the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. Prince Toshihito built the main structure, the mountain villa, in 1615. By 1662, his son, Prince Toshitada, had restored and expanded the villa, constructed teahouses and made improvements to the ponds and gardens that you can see today. The grounds are about seven hectares but it’s the inner garden that makes it one of the top cultural works of art in Japan.

I’ve been to the Shokin-tei at least nine times. I was interested in architecture students experiencing architecture, rather than only seeing images of it, and was lucky enough to get funding to set up a study tour. Once a year for nine years, I took 10 to 12 students to Japan. One week was spent with Japanese architecture students in Tokyo and the next week was spent showing them extraordinary places outside the capital. Shokin-tei was always on the itinerary.

Shokin-tei, Japan

In the teahouse, there’s a series of choreographed surprises. There’s been so much thought put in to what we see and hear and what the framing does to amplify a particular feature or a metaphor because the design tends to be linked to literature and painting. The word shokin means the sound of the Japanese harp and the whistle of the wind passing through pine trees and you hear that sound here from time to time, amplified by the water.

They say the Shokin-tei is exactly the same form as it was in the 17th century. What also inspires me is that it’s built of timber, which is a renewable resource and a beautiful material to work with. The Japanese have long built with timber and in such a way that the structures can resist earthquakes. They have a practice with timber buildings where you can disassemble them and take out and repair or substitute a piece that hasn’t worn well.

The Shokin-tei is another world. While Kyoto is a traditional city in parts, it’s still a big modern city with normal traffic and so forth. But here you don’t have any of that. If you’re lucky, there’s not even the sound of a whipper snipper! One time, there were gardeners with white gloves and tweezers pruning the pine needles off trees. It’s wonderful to be in a country where there’s such modernity and up-to-the-minute technology, yet some of the most elemental practices of caring for things.

Brit Andresen is a Norwegian-born Australian architect and the first woman to receive the Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal, in 2002, for her contribution to architecture through teaching, scholarship and practice.

Image Credit: Leopold von Ungern

SEE ALSO: How to Make the Most of a Visit to Kyoto

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