This post is a school project originally for WORLD ARCH: ORIGINS TO 1750 at The University of Texas at Austin.
In the year 625 C.E., two brothers fishing in the Miyato river outside of Tokyo caught a two-inch tall figurine in their nets. The figurine was of the Buddhist bodhisattva (holy person) associated with mercy and compassion. Excited about their find, the brothers showed the statue to the head of their village of Asakusa. Recognizing its significance, the village headman remodeled his own home into a small temple so that the village people could worship the small statue1. In the fourteen centuries after this event, the Sensoji temple at Asakusa has been the most visited and oldest temple in Tokyo.
What was once a grass-covered village miles away from Tokyo is now an economic hub with millions of yearly visitors with Sensoji at its heart. Visitors from Tokyo, other parts of Japan, and the rest of the world celebrate Asakusa not only for the arts, shopping, and culture, but also the many noodle houses, sushi shops, and teppanyaki stands that line the streets. The coffee and tea house I am designing will seek to unite the sacred space of Sensoji with the modern backdrop of Asakusa. The coffee and tea house is firmly tied to Sensoji through Shinto principles of respect for nature, honoring ancestors, and preserving traditions. The three main factors that influence the design of my tea shop are Japan’s legacy of material and craftsmanship in its architecture; the history, organization, and hierarchy of the Sensoji temple grounds; and Japan’s modern culture and social trends towards Shintoism.
Japan has over sixteen centuries of architectural heritage, and central to that legacy is timber construction. Timber is an incredibly abundant resource on the Japanese islands and provides tall buildings with resistance to lateral forces from earthquakes. In addition, the architects of these buildings employed tile roofs for their economy and fire-resistance as well as shaping the pagodas to allow the walls to open up to nature and be closed off from sun and rain. Because of these reasons, I am using traditional materials like wood for the design of the tea shop, alongside modern materials like glass, steel, and concrete.
The Sensoji complex consists of over a dozen buildings, the Nakamise-dori shopping street, and a lush strolling garden adjacent to the main temple. I am locating the building in these gardens out of respect for the sanctity of the temple grounds. In addition, I am establishing a close relationship between my building and nature.
My tea and coffee house will seek to honor the Shinto traditions of Sensoji through the respect of its cultural heritage, its relationship with nature, and its connection with Asakusa and modern Tokyo. The shop will look at home in both Asakusa and Sensoji Temple while patrons feel as close to the architecture as they do to nature.
The original Sensoji temple finished construction in 625 B.C.E. in the small fishing village of Asakusa. The temple was dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of whom the small figurine the two brothers found was in the likeness of. Kannon is an important figure in Buddhism that lived in 9th century India and is said to be the embodiment of mercy 1.
The Temple Grounds
The Sensoji temple complex consists of dozens of ceremonial gates, temples of various significance and size, pagodas, pavilions, residences, shrines, shops, and a garden. For the purposes of my tea shop design, I have selected a subset of the entire property’s offerings to focus on. First, the Nakamise-dori shopping street leads the way towards the temple grounds. A hugely popular destination in Asakusa, this street came about in the early 1700s when the temple gave permission to the local shop owners of Asakusa to set up small shops on the approach to the temple. Two large gates book-end the Nakamise-dori: Kaminarimon to the south and Hozomon to the north, marking the entrance to the temple proper. These two gates are important steps in the procession of guests from the city to the temple, as well as massively popular photo spots. The actual Sensoji temple is located past the Hozomon gate. Directly to the southwest of the temple is the Shinto shrine, a five-story pagoda. Past the pagoda is the Denboin, a lush garden and the residence to the head monk of Sensoji.
When designing the Sensoji temple tea shop, I had three priorities when deciding how to respect and incorporate the existing site into my design. First, the location of the tea shop must be out of the way and not require the destruction of any of the historic buildings. Although this was not a requirement, I believe the removal of an important building to be outside of the spirit of the competition. Second, the tea shop should allow patrons to have a view of the two most important buildings on the site, the Sensoji temple building, and the five-story pagoda. Even if it is not possible for guests to view these two buildings from inside the shop, I would like them to be visible from the area around the tea shop. Lastly, the tea shop must be nature-adjacent. Nature plays an important role in both Shintoism and Buddhism, therefore I want the tea shop to feel like a small retreat from the city and temple.
An important aspect to Shintoism is the respect for one’s heritage. For my tea shop, honoring this principle means not only looking at past precedence and the historic buildings at Sensoji but also Asakusa. A successful tea shop will fit in with the modern, fast-paced backdrop.
Asakusa is a district of Taito, which is one of the 23 wards of Tokyo. This city traces its roots back over 1,000 years, where it started as a small fishing village outside of Tokyo. During the Edo period (1608 -1868), Asakusa emerged as one of the entertainment capitals of the area, known for its thriving kabuki theater scene and lavish geisha houses. Today, Asakusa has a thriving arts scene, hundreds of small food stalls and restaurants, and shops that attract locals and tourists alike. My goal is to design a tea shop that becomes one of these tourist destinations, allowing more people to visit and connect with the heritage of Sensoji.
The designers of Sensoji employed axiality to great effect through the temple grounds. The Nakamise-dori shopping avenue to the south of the property is a major tourist attraction and economic hub for Asakusa. The street runs nearly 1,000 feet in total and consists of over 80 vendor stalls. At the southern terminus, the famously photogenic Kaminarimon gate marks the beginning of the road to Sensoji, and the Hozomon gate marks the Northern end of the Nakamise-dori and the entrance to the Sensoji temple grounds. The designers employed axiality at Sensoji for three reasons. First, the Nakamise-dori’s long axis orients the entirety of Asakusa along the grid that is formed by the shopping street, much like how the lives of the citizens of Asakusa orient their own personal spiritual life around the temple. Second, the two gates at the northern and southern end of the Nakamise-dori act as two thresholds that a person visiting Sensoji must go through to reach the temple, symbolically preparing their mind and spirit for the holy site. This idea of ritually passing through gates is present in other parts of Japan, such as the Shinto Fushimi Inari shrine in southern Kyoto, famous for its thousands of Torii gates. My tea shop will seek to honor the axiality of the site by preserving existing footpaths between Asakusa and the temple grounds, as well as preserving important views that are important to a visitor’s experience of Sensoji.
Tatami and Shoin-zukuri
Beginning in the late Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) and early Edo period (1600-1868), a new architectural style began to emerge among the wealthier classes in Japan. Called Shoin-zukuri. Originally a style associated with temple guest halls, abbot’s quarters, and certain military buildings, Shoin-zukuri became the foundation for nearly all architecture that is regarded today as traditional-style Japanese architecture2. This style is characterized by the use of rooms with a core area surrounded by aisles with smaller side areas separated with sliding fusuma doors or shoji partitions, usually made out of paper and wood. A fantastic example of this style of architecture lies directly across the path from the proposed tea shop at the residence and lecture hall of the head monk’s house.
One of Shoin-zukuri’s longest-lasting contributions to modern Japanese architecture is the use of the tatami mat, a flooring material roughly 1.8 meters by .9 meters in size3. The tatami matt is one of the most globally recognized pieces of Japanese architecture and is still used today throughout Japan. In fact, a large portion of modern-day Japanese real estate is marketed in terms of how many tatami mats will fit inside each room. For example, an agent could advertise an apartment as being a 5 tatami room. As strange as this sounds, it actually is a very efficient way of knowing intuitively the size of a room, as well as a way of standardizing furniture.
As an architect, I care about the tatami system because it is a rational, systematic way of organizing floor space in Japanese buildings. Any architect wishing to design a building in Japan must be at least aware of the tatami system and choose to either embrace it as a module of special order or willfully ignore it to achieve its aims through other means.
Left: Shoin-zukuri style building. Right: Interior showing tatami matt floor
Possibly the single most iconic characteristic of a Japanese temple is the multi-tiered, curved roofs. In fact, for many people, curved roofs are the only thing they think of when Japanese architecture comes to minds. Sensoji and the other historic buildings on site are prime examples of the curved pagoda roof, defining the silhouette of the buildings from a mile away. What is less known is why these roofs are curved.
There is a popular factoid about curved Asian roofs in general which states that the roofs are curved in order to ward off evil spirits, which purportedly cannot travel in straight lines4. I believe that this is a very old, very widely dispersed urban legend that has its roots in the chinese architecture that were the precursors to Japan’s temples. The reason I believe this is that there was a widely held belief in early Chinese Buddhist communities that spirits could only travel in straight lines, however this belief typically only showed up in planning streets and paths in communities. As a result, many Chinese villages feature a masugata, or sharp right angle turn on the street approaching a village. However, there was not a belief that spirits could fly up into a straight sloped roof. I believe that this explanation gained popularity because it is a fun explanation of an iconic feature of Buddhist architecture.
One piece of evidence that supports this theory comes from examining Shinto shrines, which predate Buddhist temples in Japan. These roofs share many similarities to those found in later buddhist buildings, such as a gentle curve and steep slope
Yamahata, Nobujiro. Goto, Yu. Ando, Naomi. A Study on the Roof Curve of Japanese Pagodas. Tokyo: Journal for Geometry and Graphics Volume 12, 2008.. Since shintoism doesn’t have a similar straight-line-evil-spirits belief, there must have been some other rational reason for building this way.
Hall of Prayers at Ise Grand Shine, featuring steeply gabled, curved roofs.
So, if early Japanese builders were not designing steeply curved roofs to ward off evil spirits, why do temple roofs look the way they do? There are two factors that shape why these roofs look this way: rain and sun. The east Asian countries where buddhism was practiced are prone to heavy, seasonal rains and the main roofing material available to them was likely thatch or clay tiles. In order to make a thatch roof as watertight as possible, the slope of the roof needs to be very steep to shed water. Even after Japanese architects moved away from thatch towards other roofing materials, the steep roofs stayed a part of the iconic look of the building even though it was not strictly required for water-proofing. Second, Japanese temple roofs cantilever in a curve because the builders wanted to provide sun shaded to the interior spaces4. The best way to keep sun out of the often open-air interior spaces is to have the roof overhang. In tokyo, the winter sun is relatively low in the sky, which is why these roofs flair up at the edges, to allow in the more desirable winter sunshine to warm the interior spaces.
The oldest existing wooden structure in the world resides in Japan. A staggering 1,400 years old, Horyuji temple in Nara stands as a testament to both Japanese craftsmanship and its builder’s knowledge of earthquake resistance5. To accomplish this, the architects of Horyuji and many similar temples employed a shinbashira, a central wooden pillar that runs the entire height of a pagoda and allows for greater flexibility during seismic activity. The five-story pagoda at Sensoji features a shinbashira at its core which has allowed it to stay standing when other buildings in the area have since fallen to earthquakes.
Earthquake-resistance is still an important factor in Japanese architecture. In fact, Japan has some of the most extensive, well thought out seismic building codes in the developed world. To respect both the heritage of the site and the modern Japanese construction environment, I have chosen to implement a degree of earthquake resistance in my tea shop design.
I have chosen to locate the tea shop in the Denboin at Sensoji, located directly southwest of the main temple. The Denboin is the private garden and location of the residence of the abbot of Sensoji Temple, the Buddhist monk responsible for the administration of the temple and its grounds. Although it is a “private” garden, guests are more than welcome to explore and enjoy the winding paths, small shrines, sakura trees, and pond.
The denboin makes an ideal location for the tea shop for three reasons. First, the central idea behind my building is to honor the shinto tradition of Sensoji, a major portion of which hinges on a connection with nature. Second, it is important to not move, alter, or demolish any of the existing buildings, which would be defeating the purpose of honoring such an old, historic building. Finally, the garden is located ventrally within Sensoji’s grounds, allowing for the movement of people from Asakusa, through the garden, past the tea shop, and into the temple grounds.
Buddhism and Shintoism
The fundamental design principle of my tea shop is to honor the spiritual and cultural heritage of the site by understanding how Buddhism and Shintoism affect the design language of Japanese architecture.
Shintoism as a religion dates back at least 2000 years in Japan. Although no standard definition of what Shintoism exactly is, generally speaking, it is the belief in kami or the supernatural entities at the center of the religion. Therefore, Shintoism as a religion encompasses the theologies, practices, and institutions around kami worship. Kami can be thought of roughly as the equivalent to a god or spirit in other religions. In addition to the worshipping and honoring of Kami, Shinto encompasses three other affirmations: understanding that family is the foundation for preserving traditions, holding nature sacred, and the ritual cleansing one’s self before entering a shrine6.
As a non-Japanese non-Shinto follower, it would be disingenuous to design a building that directly honors deities I myself to not believe in. However, I can still pay homage to the heritage of the site. The two aspects of Shintoism I will directly address in my design are a direct and honest connection with nature and respect for Japanese traditions.
Tea Shop Design
Based on the research done above, I have chosen three main design goals when developing the space, form, and materiality of the tea shop. First and most importantly, the shop must take into account nature in its position in the site, views, and connection with the rest of the temple. Second, the building must look modern enough to not look out of place within the modern cultural hub of Asakusa where Sensoji is located. Third, I will thoughtfully choose the materiality and construction of the tea shop with respect to the historic buildings at Sensoji
Location within the Denboin and Building Form
As previously mentioned, I have located the tea shop within the temple’s private (but still public) gardens, named the Denboin. As a result of the sacred nature of the space, it is vitally important to not destroy the delicate balance of the garden. This means that I cannot move any shrines, alter any paths, or touch any of the abbot’s residence buildings. The form of the building must fit in the organic shapes of the garden’s layout while still meeting the square footage requirements of the competition. In addition, I cannot block any major views of the temple or the five-story pagoda, while giving patrons of the tea shop a direct connection with the Denboin through views of the gardens and pond. With all of these considerations in mind, I have chosen the following space as the site:
Overview of the proposed tea shop
The shape of the tea shop fits perfectly within the island of grass within the Denboin where it is located. This location means that almost half of the building is overlooking the scenic pond in the middle of the garden. This should allow customers to be able to enjoy their beverages while connecting with nature. The shape also means that the existing paths can remain in the garden, preventing interruptions to foot traffic.
I have kept the building’s plan relatively simple, dedicating a majority of the space to customer seating, with a small restroom and storage room tucked away along the side. A single long, interior wall and an array of columns support the roof. The base of the building follows the contours of the path surrounding the site. On the side of the building that borders the water, the base is recessed to allow the patio to cantilever over the edge of the water, allowing guests to be almost floating over the water’s edge. The rest of the base is flush with the edge of the deck. This move is a direct attempt to maintain the continuity between architecture and nature.
Tea shop adjacent to Denboin pond with 5-story Shinto shrine in background
Southeastern side of tea shop
Eastern side of tea shop
As mentioned previously, Japanese architects employed steeply sloping, curvy, flared roofs in order to efficiently shed water and block out harsh summer sunlight. My tea shop uses a flat roof design instead. The design, however, is a result of the exact same factors. The roof overhangs the edge of the pavilion to provide shading to the interior of the shop and the guests dining on that wrap-around deck. The flat roof allows for water collection and drainage to the adjacent pond instead of it trickling over the edges of the roof and onto customers. In addition, I wanted to make the roof as low-profile as possible as to not block views of the temple buildings in the background from guests in the gardens.
In order to preserve the legacy of Japanese craftsmanship while highlighting the modern Japanese construction environment, I have chosen to construct the tea shop out of glass, steel, wood, and a special white rubber sheet to act as a sun-shading mechanism.
The tea shop consists of a raised platform constructed out of steel I-beams with Sugi, a Japanese Cedar tree, forming the floor of the platform. The roof is made of I-beams, supported by a grid of five-inch solid steel columns. I have chosen to use solid steel for the columns, as opposed to concrete-filled steel pipes, in order to allow them to be a thinner diameter and make the space seem less crowded and busy. Japanese cherry wood planks adorn the underside of the roof, arranged in a simple pattern that mimics the wooden ceilings of other buildings located on the temple grounds.
The purpose of movable wooden screens lines with paper as a wall material in traditional Japanese architecture is to allow soft light to permeate through, provide privacy when needed, and to be opened up during pleasant weather to connect the interior space with the outside. My goal when selecting a wall material was to allow for these three principles to persist in my tea shop while acknowledging the practical challenges with building wood and paper walls. As a result, I have chosen to use a glass curtain wall around the entirety of the tea shop. In a setting as beautiful as the Denboin, it seems like a crime to cover up even a square foot of garden view. However, the challenge of the large heat-gain through the curtain walls means that some type of sun-shading mechanism must be used.
Possibly the most striking feature of the tea shop is the unique sun-shading mechanism that provides the interior protection from direct sunlight while still allowing views to the exterior garden. The mechanism consists of nearly 150 vertical sheets of weather and UV resistant rubber. The sheets are fixed at the bottom of the curtain wall and attached to a movable arm at the roof. The arms rotate depending on the amount of sun around the tea shop, twisting and untwisting the plastic sheet to balance sun-blocking and allowing people to see outside.
I chose to use this sun shading mechanism for several reasons. First, I wanted the tea shop to have a near 360 degree view of the surrounding garden and site, so a curtain wall system was a good fit. However, having all sides of the building being glass would necessitate some type of shading to protect the interior from the harsh Tokyo summer sun. Second, I wanted to make the pavilion stand out among other buildings in the area by giving it a unique look that would make it special. Lastly, I wanted to give a nod to the paper-lined shoji screens that surround many of the buildings at Sensoji by using a while, semi-transparent material.
The shading mechanism consists of 140 sheets of UV-resistant rubber that are fixed at the floor plate and articulate mechanically at the roof to shade the interior of the building.
Honoring of Shinto Principles
My design directly addresses two aspects of Shintoism: connection with nature and respect for Japanese traditions. The building honors the temple grounds by trying to sit as lightly as possible on the site. Visitors’ connections with nature are preserved by the 360-degree view of the Denboin gardens. Additionally, the tea shop’s visual permeability means that guests already in the gardens can see through the building, making it less obtrusive.
Whereas the building’s connection with nature is relatively straightforward, its parallel in the preservation and honoring of Japanese traditions is less so. In Japan, a person honoring his or her ancestor’s traditions wouldn’t simply live in a wooden hut and work in rice fields, even though that is what nearly all of their ancestors did. Similarly, my building is made of modern materials like glass, steel, and plastic, instead of a straightforward reproduction of Japanese historic architecture. However, the same person would almost certainly stop by his or her neighborhood shrine on the way home from work once or twice a week to pay their respects to their ancestors. Correspondingly, my building uses Japanese wood to create a sense of warmth and traditionalism in the interior space, as well as the use of the rubber sun-shades to mimic the paper windows seen on buildings throughout the site.
The tea shop is designed to maximize views of the Denboin from inside and give patrons a sense of connection with nature
The Tatami’s Legacy
Japanese builders have utilized the tatami system for centuries to modulate and organize interior spaces in buildings across Japan. Since my tea shop is not based on a square or rectangular grid, simply placing matts across the floor in a traditional pattern would not add any value to the building. Instead, I have chosen to use the spirit and intention of the tatami system to create a rational series of cubby shelves along the long interior wall. These shelves use the same one-to-two proportion as the tatami, however they are scaled to a smaller size. The purpose of these shelves is to give the store owners a rational, organized way to display tea for sale, food items, or antiques. This system mirrors that found in Sensoji and temples across Japan, where important relics are displayed for patrons. The hope for this system is that it honors the tatami system used at Sensoji while meeting a practical need in the tea shop.
The tatami-inspired shelves provide a flexible way to store and display merchandise and decorations
As mentioned previously, traditional Japanese pagoda architecture employed a tall, round tree-trunk like pole in their center to provide flexibility during Earthquakes. Although my tea shop is not as tall as the pagodas on Sensoji’s site, it is still necessary to address earthquakes in its design.
In order to give my building seismic stability while maintaining the clean, modern aesthetic I am trying to achieve, I have chosen to support the roof of my shop using a central wall made of earthquake-resistant masonry. Solid steel columns support the perimeter of the roof. The pillars are solid to allow for a minimal diameter, obscuring as little of the view from inside the building as possible. While not as flexible or monolithic as the shinbashira wooden pillar in ancient Japanese construction, this solution fits with the building’s design philosophy of acknowledging the technology of the surrounding historic buildings while adapting them to modern Japanese building methods.
The Tea Shop’s Legacy
My tea and coffee shop honors the Shinto traditions of Sensoji through the respect of its cultural heritage, its relationship with nature, and its connection with Asakusa and modern Tokyo. The tea shop feels perfectly at home at Sensoji while not trying to pretend to be an old structure from a century prior, a living parallel between ancient Japanese architecture and modern Japan.
Designing this tea shop has afforded me as the designer the gift of seeing a culture through its architectural heritage. Although I had the pleasure of visiting Sensoji temple during a trip to Tokyo last year, I did not have nearly the respect for the site’s architecture and social impact on Asakusa until deep-diving into the background of the site. Through my research, I have grown a much richer understanding of not only Sensoji temple, but also Japanese architecture as a whole.
- Fujimori, Terunobu, Mitsumasa Fujitsuka, and Hart Larrabee. Japan’s Wooden
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Nuijsink, Cathelijne. How to Make a Japanese House. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2012.
Yamahata, Nobujiro. Goto, Yu. Ando, Naomi. A Study on the Roof Curve of Japanese Pagodas. Tokyo: Journal for Geometry and Graphics Volume 12, 2008.
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Young, David & Young, Michiko. The Art of Japanese Architecture. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2007.