Horiguchi, Hoffmann, Tea Ceremony, Gesamtkunstwerk

By Georgia Merritt | April 19th 2024

Inherent to the idea of Chowa is the blending of cultures, and eras: where a new thought can ignite a tradition or aesthetic of the past… A particularly intriguing exponent of this concept is Sutemi Horiguchi, whose work situates itself between seemingly disparate contexts: an architect who surveyed Japanese history with a contemporary lens, yet remained faithful to its sacred cultures.

Horiguchi was born in the Gifu prefecture in 1895, from a learned Japanese background: writing waka poems and practicing tea ceremony from a very early age. As a teenager he discovered his admiration for Fauvism and the paintings of Cezanne, and began painting in a western influenced style. He then went on to study architecture at university, and embarked on a career as an architect.

Alongside five other architecture students of Tokyo Imperial University, Horiguchi formed the first modern architectural group of Japan: 分離派 (Bunriha Kenchikukai, 1920-1928). Naming themselves “The Secessionist School/Movement”, in reference to the Secessionists of Vienna, yet in Japanese: this was important to them, as they identified very much as Japanese and as their own individual architecture movement.

“We strive to awaken all that is sleeping in the architectural realm of the past, and rescue all that is on the verge of drowning.” - 分離派 Manifesto

Each following their own aesthetic path, the group members didn’t strive to have a unified practice. What instead connected them was their desire to break free from the architecture of early 20th century Japan, which they felt was wholly artless. They instead imagined a new architecture that “functioned as a dialectic between the past and the future, and Western and Eastern architecture”.

In 1923 ​​Horiguchi traveled to Europe for around six months, where he re-enacted his studies in person and witnessed the architectural icons of his degree. He visited many countries, but his main priority was to explore and study Vienna, whose secessionist movement is seen by many as the herald of modernism. Whilst the intention of the Viennese secessionists may have been quite different to the historic architecture of Japan, looking at the two together presents a pleasurable spiral to fall down: with countless parallels between the movement's linear qualities and that of the architecture of Japan to draw. When reflecting on these images it's clear how Sutemi intuitively rediscovered the geometry of his home, newly illuminated by Europe’s contemporaneity.

Stoclet Palace, 1911, Belgium, Josef Hoffmann


Kikkawa House, Tokyo, Horiguchi Sutemi, 1930


In 1827 German philosopher K.F.E. Trahndorff defined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk”, translating to ‘total work of art’. A word that encompasses the idea of a complete artwork, it is often ascribed to architectural projects in which an individual is creatively responsible for all aspects of the site: from interior, to exterior. The term pushes past the boundaries of media, in a way proclaiming that all of these distinctions are, at their essence, an artwork. Secessionist and Wiener-Werkstatte co-founder Josef Hoffmann is an exemplar of this, working within architecture, design, and art simultaneously.

Experiencing the Gesamtkunstwerk of Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet ignited a spark for Horiguchi, feeling that Japan had performed this ‘synthesis of the arts’ before: in the teahouse.

For Horiguchi, the historic notion of 茶道 (Chadô - The way of tea) was reanimated by the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, due to the two worlds’ intriguing correlations. The harmony of Gesamtkunstwerk, felt as embodiment of a creative experience across media in a space, aligns with the sense of harmony felt in the 茶室 (Chashitsu) - Tea Room. The Chashitsu is a simplified environment, with a few necessary elements (and no others). This space is carefully constructed of these components, each with their own function.

The choreographed experience of the tea ceremony at a chashitsu is its own total artwork: not only its interior but whole exterior is built with complete intention, directing the experience for the person it encompasses: from its construction, to geography. Traditionally the classical freestanding chashitsu is constructed with a complete experience in mind… A garden path that leads you to a waiting bench to one side, closely followed by a stone water basin for guests to wash their hands and mouth before entering. Then the nijiriguchi is encountered: a ‘crawl in entrance’ that guests bend down to reach the chashitsu’s interior; the idea being that the guest is humbled through ducking down to enter the space.

Nijiriguchi, Kyoto, James Kemlo, 2015


数寄屋造り(Sukiya-Zukuri) is the architectural term that encompasses the aesthetic of the chashitsu. Sometimes used more as a stylistic category, it embodies an essentialist philosophy of architecture: where natural materials are honored, and typically self-effacing (For example, teamaster Sen no Rikyū stained the wood of a Shoin chashitsu to create a sooty, older appearance).

Typically made of shoji screens and walls of earthen plaster, a chashitsu’s interior is a humble space made of modest materials, reflective of the mindful nature of Chadô. Its structure features 床の間 (Tokonoma), a wall recess which holds the room’s main ‘decorative’ element, 茶花 (chabana - tea flowers), floral arrangements presented to emulate the current season, alongside a hanging scroll.

Konokimitei, Chiba, 2022

Horiguchi continued to study the architecture of the tearoom alongside 1930s modernism, expanding the latter’s concepts not only within the tearoom’s historic philosophy, but also its form:

“When you observe a Mizuya [or water preparation area] in a tearoom, the fully heightened architectural expression, which displays a straight and beautiful harmony and a variation with the most practical adjustment and invention, is an integrated perfection of function and expression.”

-Sutemi Horiguchi, "Kenchiku no Hi-Toshiteikina Mono ni Tsuite (On Non-urban-ness in Architecture)

Horiguchi was fascinated by the harmony of function and expression, of which the Chashitsu is a perfect example. This same sense of ‘full circle’ exists in the Gesamtkunstwerk of the Secessionists too, where the designs of a Wiener-Werkstatte interior not only have a function to fulfill, but also an aesthetic duty to the movement of which they belong.


Josef Hoffman, Interior, 1903 (Das Interieur IV, Hauptteil Seite 6)


Sen no Rikyū, Tai-an Chashitsu, 1582, Myoki-an Temple, Kyoto

The spaces of the Secessionist movement display a ‘wholeness’: where a domestic space and its objects form the total artwork through a strong stylistic motivation. In this sense, these objects then imbue a total feeling into the inhabitants’ experience, akin to what is felt during the tea ceremony (not dissimilar to relational aesthetics):

The tea-drinking […] is not just drinking tea, but it is the art of cultivating what might be called “psychosphere” or the psychic atmosphere, or the inner field of consciousness.”

-Suzuki, 1959, pp. 295-6 Zen and Japanese Culture, New York: Princeton University Press, pp. 295-6


Horiguchi Sutemi, Zangetsu-no-ma (Moon room), 1950


Both of these worlds provide a lens with which to look at the other, and Horiguchi’s practice thrived off of this reciprocity. His exploration of Europe's modernism was fate-like, with his affinity circling back to his roots: where the reductionist philosophies of Japan anticipated the lines of Modernism centuries prior.



Stepping stones from the Imperial Carriage Stop to the Gepparo, Katsura Imperial Villa, 1954, Gelatin silver print, Ishimoto Yasuhiro Photo Center


Austrian Pavillion, Josef Hoffmann, 1934