Hall Architects

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Nancy L. Ellis Tea House, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Article from AIA Florida/Caribbean Architect, Spring 2019

May 2019

In the 15th century, a Japanese monk named Marata Juko endeavored to relink the preparation of tea to its spiritual roots by stripping away all the unnecessary accouterments introduced when serving tea became popular with the aristocracy. Instead of fine china, he introduced local pottery. Instead of large tea houses set prominently on the public square, he advocated for humble indigenous structures set in countryside gardens. The hustle and bustle of the city gave way to rustic serenity.

Marata Juko ritualized the tea ceremony in such a way that the movement of the body and the architecture of the tea house and garden became a unified element gathered from its own environment. The ideal free- standing tea house is surrounded by a small garden with a path leading to the tea room. One enters through a small square door or "crawling-in" entrance, which requires bending low to pass into the small, quiet interior from the busy outside world. The tea room has a low ceiling and no furniture. Guests and host sit on the floor. All building materials are intentionally simple and rustic.

When commissioned-to design a tea house for the grounds of the prestigious John and Mable Ringling Museum, the architect questioned what such a structure should look like in Sarasota. In fact, many of the tenets of tea house design are sympathetic to those of the Sarasota School - including direct forms, openness and a connection with the landscape. The Ringling's programmatic requirements dictated that the most formal tea ceremonies might be performed there, so the challenge was to marry a traditional, tea house form to a Southwest Florida architecture style that would meet wind loading, flood, energy and accessibility requirements. The tea house is sited in a high wind and flood zone, requiring the 155-square-foot structure to be both robust and elevated. As a countermeasure, the designer endeavored to maintain a sense of delicacy and scale in the detailing. After a regional review of austere structures built with common materials, the architects ultimately used river-recovered cypress logs felled at the turn of the century.

Outside, the observation deck is situated as a viewing platform from which to observe educational tea ceremonies performed at the museum. The deck was also designed to be a contemplative resting space on the long trip around the Ringling property. Guests enter the tea house crawling through a small door to show humility to the host of the ceremony. This door is framed with windows positioned so the tea service inside can be observed. The host enters in an upright position through a taller door then kneels to prepare the tea. Throughout the interior, the detailing is simple and elegant. Since the building will be used to display period artifacts from the Ringling collection, an HVAC system was required. The return air louvers are integrated into the design of the tea preparation cabinet. 

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