Going Beyond Ideas is an ongoing series of events in Japan organised by Japan RSA Connector, Tania Coke, with support from the RSA Japan Fellows' Network.
Our third session in July, focused on the role architecture plays in addressing both physical and metaphysical requirements, and was presented by architect Takefumi Kamio FRSA.
Around 30 people, including a number of RSA Fellows, gathered at the CTW space in central Tokyo to listen to Takefumi take the example of a Japanese tea house to demonstrate his ideas.
Japanese tea houses, designed specifically for tea ceremonies, were traditionally exclusive to those who occupied the highest ranks of society in Japan.
This is due to the inseparable relationship between the ceremony and Zen Buddhism. The whole experience, designed to bring Zen concepts to life, was intended to be a transformative one.
With this in mind, how large a role did the space itself have to play?
"On a clear day you can see forever and in the darkness you can see infinity." - Takefumi Kamio FRSA
Takefumi Kamio is an architect. But one who started as a mechanical engineer. And this is what has made all the difference.The roots of his knowledge are to be found in structures; structures that have sprouted a fascination with simplicity. So what does simplicity look like in architecture? Less corridors, simple spaces, removing alcoves?
Perhaps the more important question we should ask is, "Is minimal space satisfying - physically and metaphysically?"
Meaning In Minimalism
Takefumi introduced us to the vehicle of his presentation: a Japanese tea room. By walking us around the tea room, Takefumi would point out examples that demonstrate an idea of minimalism with meaning.
How could anyone feel satisfied in one of these teeny, tiny rooms? Is it even possible to feel satisfaction in such a confined space?
Sen no Rikyu
Sen no Rikyu was a zen monk and tea master who had a profound influence on cha-no-yu, the Japanese Way Of Tea.
He strove to make the tea room smaller and smaller, and less and less outwardly impressive. In particular, he popularised the spirit of Wabi Sabi by making it live and breathe in almost every aspect of the ceremony.
Wabi: an attempt to present insufficiency as something very valuable.
Sabi: a quality of something that has mellowed with age, like old stones with moss or rusted metal.
Sen no Rikyu was constantly trying to simplify the tea room and it's important to note that this was most poignantly in terms of size. The average size of a room at the time was 4.5 tatami, but he limited this to 2 tatami. His revolutionary idea of eliminating any elevated parts of the room, was testament to the value he placed on equality. He was employed as a tea master by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who controlled Japan at this time and whose approval helped his ideas achieve a more far reaching influence.
Design of the Tea Room 'Taian'
These served not only as a prompt for Samurai to remove their swords before entering, but ensured that all who entered, did so bowed.
In this way, the door serves both as an entrance and a symbol of separation. A departure from reality and purposeful isolation from the outside world.
Light played a fundamental role in the tea room and was strictly controlled. We would do well to remember, that although Hideyoshi had rooms painted in gold, at this time, without much artificial light, the gold wouldn't have appeared shiny or bold.
Unlike the lavish Palace of Versailles, where the use of gold was clearly intended to impress, here the role of light would take precedence and would have a very different role to play. Its role was to express meaning in space and to invite us to contemplate that meaning.
Just as a kakejiku or Japanese hanging scroll, or as ko or Japanese incense, initially impact our senses and subsequently subside, we understand that we can reach a limit in our experience.
In Praise Of Shadows
By carefully controlling light, is it possible to make our experience unlimited and to infuse metaphysical meaning into the process?
Limiting the role of light in the room effectively serves two aims:
The first, in the same way as Western churches diminish bright light, is an invitation to isolation and reflection. The second, presents us with a choice and a question: Conveniency vs. Insufficiency
What if we ventured beyond conveniency and efficiency and tried to choose something beyond the tangible?
Takefumi explained that, small as the room may be, the darkness is the very reason the space becomes unlimited. The room becomes so much more than a room in observing this crucial consideration.
In the tradition of old kabuki theatres, it places the importance of shadows abovean all revealing, incandescence and, in doing so, transcends simplicity and the tangible.
The title for this concluding passage has been taken from the book, In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki, and was highly recommended by fellow fellows who attended. You can read it here: https://www.scribd.com/doc/289384916/Junichiro-Tanizaki-In-Praise-of-Shadows-pdf
As the conversation kept flowing, with Takefumi answering our burning questions, a sentence escaped his lips that summed up the presentation so well, I scribbled it down in seconds:
"Too much explanation leaves no room for imagination."
Certainly as I set about constructing the taian tea room model, that Takefumi gave us all to try at home, I found myself thinking about what else I could shed some shade on.
The next Going Beyond Ideas session will be held on September 12th, with further sessions scheduled every other month in 2017.
Further information: www.thersa.japan.org