When you eat your breakfast in the morning, do you slurp through your coffee while dressing yourself (or someone you love) and chomp down your toast on your way out the door? Or are you one of those who savors your meal, enjoying the peaceful calm of the early hour?
The ceremony of drinking tea in Japan is a careful sequence of small events called sado. At the center of the ceremony, one drinks a small portion of tea, yet this tea drinking would be nothing nearly so special if it were extricated from the entire experience. Sa in this context means “tea,” while do means “way,” which comes from the Chinese word, which transliterates as tao. It implies the method or approach one applies to the behavior or activity in question. Rather than focusing on the product, in this case, the cup of tea, the word describes the process by which the experience of drinking tea is conjured.
Sado is famously elaborate, site specific, and temporal. In essence, it involves a lot of waiting around for something to happen, in progressively uncomfortable physical positions. When the time for the main event finally takes place, one gulps the tea in one or two sips, as efficiently as possible: neither wasting time, nor rushing. The tea drinking is practiced as a moment: it is now or never. The bitterness of the tea powder swirling in hot water is overpowering, and then it is simply over.
There are some consolation events after the tea, where a small molded sugar candy is served, and then it is time to (attempt to) elegantly rise up off your knees, bow to your hosts and walk away. Out over the stones, past the pond, through the garden, past the bench where you waited in the dewy air for what seemed like too long to be called in, and through the bamboo gate.
The tea ceremony is the design of an interaction.
Are there ways to design parts of the city as a sequence of events that build to a single moment? Can we curate those events so they carefully and seamlessly become a full and coherent experience? The commute to work is a sequence of events that many go through five times a week. You grab your bike from its storage place, bring it out to the street, adjust your sunglasses, and set off. You wave to the baker. You arrive at the cycletrack or bike path and join the other cycling commuters. At a stoplight a couple kiss and then wave goodbye, the light turns and one of them peels off to the right. Pedestrians cross the lane and smile apologetically as they hop on the bus. The clock strikes 9:00 as you arrive at work. You park your bike in the courtyard of the building where you work, consider buying a coffee to brace you for the day. Up four flights of stairs you climb, through the heavy door, and there you are, ready for another day.
Freeways and roads are usually designed prioritizing utility, making the commute to work bland, introspective, and somewhat isolating. Infrastructure enabling active mobility (biking and walking), in contrast, has the opportunity to lay out an experience of the city and one’s place within it. Although it may not reach the intense beauty of the rigorous sado, the “way” of urban design offers another kind of beauty, that simple beauty of public life.