Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, an example of sukiya style.

Sukiya-zukuri (数寄屋造り) is one type of Japanese residential architectural style. Suki means refined, well cultivated taste and delight in elegant pursuits [1] and refers to enjoyment of the exquisitely performed tea ceremony.

The word originally denoted a building in which tea ceremony was done (known as a chashitsu) and was associated with ikebana flower arranging, and other Japanese traditional arts. It has come to indicate a style of designing public facilities and private homes based on tea house aesthetics.[2]

It is characterised by a use of natural materials.


In 1587 Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98) employed the tea master Sen no Rikyū as his advisor on aesthetic matters. In the compound of Hideyoshi's imposing Jurakudai castle in Kyoto Rikyū designed an eighteen mat building known as the Coloured Shoin which was thought to be the first example of sukiya-zukuri architecture.[3]

The style developed during rest of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568–1600) and was characterised by small rooms of usually four and a half tatami or even less that had a tokonoma and shelves.[4] These buildings were normally entered through a garden often by means of an indirect curved or diagonal path that would not allow an instant view of the teahouse.[5]

Sukiya-zukuri architecture incorporates tea house aesthetics and encompasses all sorts of building types including private dwellings, villas, restaurants and inns. One of the best known examples is the Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto. In the Edo period (1600–1868) sukiya-zukuri became popular among townspeople, and the majority of houses came to be built in this style.[6]

Comparison with similar styles

In the Azuchi-Momoyama period not only sukiya style but the contrasting shoin-zukuri of residences of the warrior class developed. While sukiya was a small space, simple and austere, shoin-zukuri style was that of large, magnificent reception areas, the setting for the pomp and ceremony of the feudal lords. As an example, in a shoin, the flower arrangement in the tokonoma is indicative of the relative wealth of the host, the guest however sits with their back to it as it is not meant for their enjoyment. Whereas, in a tearoom, the guest sits facing the tokonoma and enjoys its beauty.[7]

A comparison with shoin-zukuri makes clear the defining stylistic features of sukiya-zukuri. The "frieze rails" called nageshi connect grooved, square columns in shoin-zukuri, the transom is often elaborately carved, the ceiling is coffered or railed with a hexagonal rail and the wall surfaces are finished and often decorated with murals. The toko alcove, tana shelves and shoin built-in desk are arranged according to a fixed formula.

In contrast, sukiya-zukuri often uses unsquared columns, even simple polished tree trunks, or wood with the bark in place for the nakabashira central column. The walls are simply finished with a natural earthen plaster, and any carving in the ranma transom is kept simple. The ceiling of boards is railed with flat, rectangular boards. Although there is a tokonoma alcove and tana shelves and maybe also shoin in the main room, their arrangement and treatment are free. The beauty of sukiya-zukuri comes from the delicate sensibility of the slender wood elements and other natural materials used, and the simplicity of ornamentation, if any.[8]


In the Coloured Shoin teahouse Sen no Rikyū stained the timbers with a mixture of Bengal red dye and black dye to make them look sooty and old. In contrast, his student's Oribe and Enshu preferred brighter colours and natural finishes. It is thought that this change coincided with the development of the regular wood plane that allowed a more consistent finish to wood and a better appreciation of the natural qualities of unfinished wood. It is a trait that has characterised the sukiya style since.[9]

After the Meiji Restoration in 1867 the samurai class and thus the shoin-style lost its reason for being whereas the sukiya style continued to develop and was reassessed for modernist architecture.

The sukiya style requires a subtle harmony between the principles required in its construction, these include the relationship between the client, the architect and the carpenter. Both the architect and the carpenter should have a profound understanding of the materials employed.[10] There is an example of a carpenter asked to build a sukiya style house declining because he lost his tools in World War Two and he felt that he would not be in a position to work satisfactorily.[11]

Writing in 1934 the architect Isoya Yoshida encouraged architects to design in the sukiya-style using modern materials. He said that it was important to display the natural characteristics of the wood although it would be a mistake to use anything that might catch the eye as this was not in the spirit of the style.[12]


During the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, a small Nippon Tea House was built near the North pond that was designed in a loose version of the sukiya-style.[13] Harper's Weekly, a national magazine, ran an article in March 1893 showing the construction of the Japanese contributions to the exhibition. The Chicago-based magazine Inland Architect also devoted two articles to it in the winter of 1892/3 so it is likely that local architects were familiar with the work.[14] The historian Dmitri Tselos first identified the Nippon Tea House as a possible influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, suggesting that the low-pitched double roof forms of the Prairie Houses as having similar forms as the teahouse roof.[15]

In 1934 in his Okada residence, the architect Sutemi Horiguchi blended elements of the sukiya-style (influenced from the Katsura Detached Palace) in the garden to help fuse western and oriental aspects of the plan.[16]

In 1954 Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus visited Katsura Detached Palace and was so struck by it that in 1960 he co-authored Katsura: Tradition and Creation Japanese Architecture with Kenzo Tange.

"Most characteristic of the spirit of the conception is the path to the entrance gate of the villa. It conforms to the favorite Zen approach, which is rarely direct, axial, and symmetrical. There is a decided distaste for the imposing straight avenue; instead, there is a preference for the intimate and casual but carefully planned approach which supplies surprises at every turn and leads up to the main objective in a human, natural, unimposing manner."

— Gropius, W (1968) "Apollo in Democracy — The Cultural Obligation of the Architect", McGraw-Hill Book Company, p126


  1. Kenkyusha's New Japanese English Dictionary, Fourth Edition 1974, p.1674
  2. Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, First Edition 1983,vol. 7, p.265
  3. Itoh (1972), p12
  4. Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, First Edition 1983,vol. 7, p.265
  5. Itoh (1972), p96
  6. Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, First Edition 1983,vol. 7, p.265
  7. Itoh (1972), p23
  8. Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan
  9. Itoh (1972), p20
  10. Itoh (1972), p25
  11. Zwerger (2000), p59
  12. Itoh (1972), p26
  13. Stewart (2002), p73
  14. Nute (1993), p53–55
  15. Nute (1993), p67
  16. Stewart (2002), p129


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