How did the Book of Tea help inspire architect Frank Lloyd Wright? Wright’s first encounter with a Japanese building happened not while touring Japan in 1905. The setting was the Japanese exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The Japanese pavilion (Ho-o-den) at the 1893 Colombian Exhibition was modeled after an 11th-century temple in Uji, and coordinated by Okakura Kakuzo, the 30-year-old director of the Tokyo University School of Art who would go on to write The Book of Tea in 1906. This was the first Japanese building that Wright would see up close.
As Wright began his career, the young architect was inspired to incorporate the Japanese temple’s steep-pitched roof details and wide-hanging eaves in early home designs.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a young architect in Chicago – and a collector of Japanese woodcuts – when he first saw a Japanese building up close at the 1893 Colombian Exhibition in Chicago.
In 2016, I lectured at Yamaguchi Prefectural University on The Book of Tea’s influence on American art and architecture. I began my talk by asking the audience to retrieve a ten-yen coin from their pockets. The back of the coin proudly displays the original Ho-o-den, or Phoenix Hall, one of the most famous buildings in Japan.
The replica of the sweeping temple made an impression on Chicagoans, including Wright, as the building was assembled on a wooded isle in the middle of a lagoon designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead.
The entire building had been crafted in Japan, disassembled, crated, and shipped to the site with Japanese artisans, where it was re-assembled with simple hand tools.
In the middle of the busy fairgrounds dedicated to America’s industrial might, the quiet island oasis, with its peaceful pavilion lit at night by candle fairy lights, became a favorite respite for millions of weary fairgoers who traveled from across the nation and the world.
As a guide for attendees, Okakura Kakuzo wrote an Illustrated Description of the Ho-o-den in English. In the booklet, he gave detailed descriptions of the interior rooms, paintings, carvings, and furnishings which exemplified Japan’s artistic accomplishments dating from the era when Columbus was setting sail for his discoveries in America.
Included in one of the rooms, Okakura presented all the utensils needed for a tea ceremony.
Author, The Book of Tea
Director, Tokyo University School of Art
Asian Arts Curator, MFA Boston
Portions of the Ho-o-den remained on the island as a gift from the Japanese even after most temporary fair buildings were dismantled or burned. The current Science and Industry Museum is the only original building from the 1893 Fair still standing in Jackson Park today.
Sadly, the beautiful Ho-o-den was destroyed by arsonists in the 1940s. The only remaining pieces of the exhibit are four carved Ranma Panels recently restored and displayed in the Japan wing of the Chicago Art Institute. I had the joy of seeing those glorious relics soon after they were hung in the Japanese Galleries.
Well, what about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Book of Tea? On one of his visits, the Japanese ambassador gave Wright a copy of Okakura’s book.
One entry made a lasting impression on the architect. So much so that Wright had the quote embedded in the auditorium wall at his Taliesin West studios outside Scottsdale, Arizona.
The auditorium wall at Wright’s studio, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona includes a quote from The Book of Tea.
Okakura quotes Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu as he uses this idea of vacuum to describe the space of a tearoom.
Wright incorporated the Asian concept into his design philosophy. For students of tea, this spirit can be discovered when entering a Wright-designed home or a Japanese tea house – or while gazing into an empty tea bowl.
When in Tokyo, I sometimes make a pilgrimage to the bar at The Imperial Hotel, the only room that remains from Wright’s original 1922 building. I love to sit in that beautiful space and raise a glass to the memories of Wright, Okakura, and the artistic spirit that continues to bind America with Japan.
Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson edited and expanded the 2011 edition of The Book of Tea, published by Benjamin Press.