When Japan-based Harada Tea Processing decided to introduce a new café concept to Boston, its considerations turned to the city’s large college population, notably in the Brookline area, an inner-ring suburb in close proximity to Boston University, Boston College, and Northeastern University. It was there that the 125-seat Gen Sou En (loosely translated as farm-to-cup) tea house was born.
For Shuji Suzumori, the Japanese-educated, New York-based architect who worked on the project, though, all of that space—some 5,500-square-feet of what was once a Panera Bread—initially proved daunting. “My first impression was, ‘Wow, it’s big,’” he says. “Then, I decided we could make this work. The design comes from how we dealt with that enormous space so it didn’t feel like a wedding hall.”
The designer turned to the long, narrow forms of traditional Kyoto machiya—row homes where merchant housing and their retail space are separated by inner courtyards—for inspiration, creating a series of circular architectural pieces, from low tatami-matted platforms to raised display and checkout counters, that serve as rooms to break up the large area.
“From the entry, the elements gradually become higher as you move to the back,” says Suzumori. “That’s very typical of the arrangement of a Japanese garden, and we tried to create that effect here so the space becomes compressed, almost like it’s a two-dimensional picture.” Take in the space from the sidelines, though, and that perception shifts. It seems to expand thanks to the strategically placed oak fins that suspend from the ceiling and act as sound bafflers.
A mix of light and dark woods is the dominant material throughout. Seating is inspired by the work of George Nakashima and the iconic Windsor chair, a colonial New England staple, while the solid beech tables are bleached to brighten them and offset the vivid green hues of the teas sold at the café. Shou sugi ban (or charred) wood walls define the separate areas and in the nakaniwa (center garden), a skylight hovers above several rattan womb chairs by Isamu Kenmochi, outfitted with surprising pink cushions. “We wanted to add little punches like that throughout the store,” says Suzumori. “Lighting fixtures are in green, orange, and yellow and one wall of Japanese stucco is painted green with little pieces of glass fibers mixed in for texture.”
Suzumori’s favorite space, though, is the tea ceremony room at the back, the one space that includes table service. “It’s very special because here we wanted to expose the brick to emphasize the traditional character and material of Boston and then wrap it in a very Japanese experience. Once again, we’re shifting the customers’ perspective and expectation.”