Shofuso House in Fairmount Park

I’m going to do some hyperventilating here.

For a while, I’ve known that there’s a Japanese house in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park called “Shofuso” (literally, “Pine Breeze Villa”), and I knew it was built in a traditional sixteenth-century style, and I wanted to hold a coworkout session there, or maybe show “Ran” for the Guerilla Drive-In, but I had never visited. Lydia and I went there yesterday, and OH MY GOD I’m suffering from Stendahl syndrome trying to process all the amazingness that we found there.

Probably the best way to do this is just to dump all my impressions, plus a late night of Wikipedia-ing and reading the house’s excellent website, in no particular order:

  • The house was designed and built in Japan in 1954 as a goodwill gift to the people of the United States. The house and garden were built for a two-season display in the courtyard of MoMA in NYC.
  • The rocks in the garden come from Japan. Once they were selected, they were WRAPPED IN PAPER to preserve the lichen and moss.
  • The house was re-assembled, and the garden was re-created, in Philadelphia in 1958, on the spot where the Japanese pavilion had been in the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. There had been a temple gate at the spot since then; this corner of Fairmount Park has always been Japanese.
  • You take your shoes off and put them in a rack before entering. The tatami mats smell sweet, like hay in the sunshine. Together with the smell of waxed cedar in the veranda, and the flowers in the garden, it smells WONDERFUL.
Lydia Running Down the Hall
  • The house is surrounded by a wall with a moat. Because this style of Japanese architecture runs seamlessly from indoors to outdoors (there might not even be any external walls during hot months, just room, then veranda, then garden), the wall around the garden kind of is the outside wall of the house.
  • The portion of the veranda outside the kitchen is carved into a non-slip surface, which is just about the best thing ever in the whole entire world
Bridge to the teahouse
  • There’s a small separate structure across a very short bridge.
  • A BRIDGE. OVER A STREAM. IN YOUR HOUSE. EXCEPT THAT IT’S ALSO OUTDOORS. OH, MY GOD.
  • The structure on the left is the teahouse, where tea ceremonies are held. The house is very small, almost hobbit-sized, and clearly not for standing up inside. It has the vibe of a playhouse, but it’s a sophisticated, grown-up playhouse vibe. Lydia was so excited by this little teahouse that she started visibly vibrating.
  • Oh, did I say Lydia? THAT WAS ME.
  • The Japanese started building small standalone teahouses in the Sengoku period, when the entire country was going to hell in a handbasket. Earthquakes, famines, armed uprisings — who would not want to build a small, simple rustic teahouse and sit in it, concentrating deliberately on small actions? Oh, MAN, I totally get this appeal.
  • The Japanese aesthetic of simplicity and appreciating imperfection, wabi-sabi… oh, that’s seductive. In many ways, it’s already very similar to Quakerism, and many have already drawn the line connecting Shaker aesthetics. But I did not know how much emphasis was placed on the natural world, and on embracing rusticity imperfection. I just finished reading “Shoes outside the Door“, about the San Francisco Zen Center’s troubles in the 1980s, and I read about Richard Baker’s expensive antique bowls, but I had imagined translucent eggshell china, not pottery that’s imperfect and asymmetrical and TOTALLY COMPELLING. OH, WOW.
  • I know what Thorstein Veblen would have to say about all this: “You’re looking at an aesthetic of curation built upon free time that in turn depends on economic oppresion!” But Veblen can stick his wet blanket WHERE THE SUN DOES NOT SHINE. Looking at the careful, clever, and irregular repairs made to the edges of the veranda brings to mind the “Repair Manifesto” that modern nerds are promulgating. Beautiful materials, carefully cared for, in a small, lovely environment? It’s totally amazing.
  • The reason it’s totally amazing is due to the dedicated work of a nonprofit group that took over a vandalized, under-maintained structure in the seventies and eighties, and loved it into the jewel that it is now.
Shofuso from across the pond

You can see a few more pictures that I took on Flickr, and you can read a lot more about the house on its website at shofuso.com. I’ve reached out to them about visiting for Coworkout, and I really really hope that we can spend a day pretending that it’s actually where we work.

I’m not quite sure how you manage yourself and your laptop when you can’t lean up against the wall, but I look forward to figuring it out!

Shofuso House in Fairmount Park

2 thoughts on “Shofuso House in Fairmount Park

  1. Thanks, Scott! We’ll post some pictures tomorrow. Expect to see “pasty programmers looking comically uncomfortable with zero furniture.”

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