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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Preservation/restoration/reconstruction/restitution: the archipelagos of mystical thought in Japan and Europe

Jean-Sébastien Cluzel

Texte intégral

1August 2007

2Japan has developed the unique strategy of periodic reconstruction to tackle the erosion of its monuments. Every twenty years, at the Ise Shrine, the old buildings serve as a model before being knocked down to build a new temple on the land adjacent to it. The continuity of this practice and the use of a model since the 6th century, gives the Shrine a sense of authenticity, that of the form of its building, passed on by the ritual repetition of the act of building.

3The case of the Ise Shrine is exceptional, even exemplary. The practice of reconstruction known as shikinen-sengû can be found at Ise, which is distinguished by the combination of different forms of Shinto, palatine and Buddhist architecture. The periods of time between reconstructions may vary, as the scale and places of reconstructed buildings are likely to change and material could be replaced; it is not compulsory that there be a model.

4Thus, in Japan, since the early historical periods, a building could have been rebuilt several decades after it had been dismantled or destroyed, in another place and on another scale, using different or partially renewed materials. These reconstruction practices break away from preservation or restoration in the modern sense of the word and are more similar to that of restitution.

5Should we settle for these old and modern restitutions as buildings representing the period in which they were built or, on the contrary, could we consider them as monuments that are illustrative of the periods that they are trying to recreate? This is what happens when we interpret classical works on the history of Japanese architecture. Historians claim that many buildings have a past older than their materials, a past older than when they were built. They thus consider the main hall of the Imperial Palace (the Shishinden) – built in 1855, which was intended to mimic that of the Heian era – as a work of architecture representing the Heian period (mid 10th century to end of the 12th century). Caught in a long tradition of rebuilding and restoration, Japanese historians maintain that the act of traditional constructions depends on evoking the past and they even go as far as playing with memory (passing on traditional knowledge, continuity of reconstruction practices and oral communication of legends, etc.) as a criterion for authenticity. It thus seems that history books on Japanese architecture break away from the principle of chronological order that Western historical knowledge is based on.

6This architecture often lacked a varnish finish, which placed Japanese architectural practices and those of the West at opposite extremes, forgetting that Japan also has authentic structures. Does the Japanese concept of time remain historical or do they place Japanese monuments in an imaginary timeframe? Moreover, is it certain that this type of thinking no longer exists in the history of Western architecture?

7From Augustus Pugin (1812–1852) to Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983), European historians have mainly explained the progress of societies (stylistic, technical and spatial) through architectural changes. Not that their idea was wrong, but the structure of their work was based on a timeline illustrated by the collection of monuments. Yet, to imagine this structure in the written works on the history of architecture – where in general, each monument only represents a single era – it would have been wise to assume in advance that the act of building is a creative art in which the new building transcends time without being affected by it. This principle, important to the writings of such work, puts an end to the issues concerning structural changes (decaying or restoration) and the specific reasons for their construction (commemoration, renovation or creation). Furthermore, this principle is a clever method to place monuments in their original era. Thus, since the beginning of the Victorian period – and until the middle of the 20th century, a period of developing architectural archaeology in Europe – this cleverness was accepted as the rule in, the general works of Western architectural history. In these works, the Saint-Front de Périgueux Cathedral, most of it rebuilt in the 19th century, was more often compared to as an authentic type architecture of the 12th century, and the fact that most of the cathedral was rebuilt within a few centuries was almost a rarity. Thus, for a long time, the monuments of the West were the archipelagos of a “temporal phantasmagoria”.

8Nowadays, in Japan and Europe, buildings are generally only restored to make up for the lack of them. There are also successful graphic restorations at the expense of trying to restore a building back to its original state. Should this choice be put down to a bout of nostalgia brought on by the possible losses due to restoration? Or, would the choice of the restoration period be too random, given the complex history of a building? These questions demonstrate that Japan and Europe, within the temporal criteria of preservation, restoration and even creation, are in a position to unsettle chronological order, which up to now, were prioritised in historical disciplines.

9On the contrary, if we consider history and architecture to be practices of memory, the paradoxes between texts and monuments are partly explained by the ubiquity of what is meant by “creation”. In producing something new and original, we presuppose the existence of material, data and experiences. Thus, any preservation or restoration is intrinsically creative, in the same way that any creation or restitution preserves something of the past. Consequently, if our debate concerned that of the authenticity of a structure, the answer that Claude Lévi-Strauss gives on the authenticity of a myth’s versions sheds more light on the problem raised by all the architectural practices, stating that “there is no true version [of a myth], all the other versions are either copies or imitations of it. All versions belong to the myth.”

10Today, the preservation of monuments as it stands, or the restoration work that seeks to bring a building back to its original state, partly reflect our nostalgia of the past and our reluctance to participate in the adventure in the present. However, it is important to remember that refusing to mark old buildings is considered a stigma of our time, which has never been seen before, perhaps representing a new phenomenon in the allegory of architectural design.

11In the distant past, architecture was the preferred area in which one could conquer the past. Through architecture, many poets saw a machine that could turn back time. For many, the illusion of being able to go back in time was so poignant that a building was like a mirror where romantic souvenirs and reality merged. Thus, in search of lost time, many poets were inspired by architecture and found refuge in its history and fantasized about monuments. Moreover, the complicity between architects and poets was sometimes so intense that architecture and its history are still the archipelagos of myth.

12To conclude, I will follow a tradition of comparative studies on the history of monuments between Japan and Europe, by comparing the Parthenon to the Ise Shrine. Le Corbusier was horrified when he first visited the Parthenon. The temple seemed like a “monster” to him, because those who had restored it had taken away recent constructions from the site, leaving the monument alone and timeless. Did those who wanted to demolish old Paris experience nostalgia over the marks that disappeared with time? In restoring the Parthenon – the 20th century version of the building – did the archaeologists want to return the building to its original site or did they want to restore the picturesque and exotic image that we had conceived about ancient Greece? The restoration of the monument and the site created a phantasmagoria. The same, however, cannot be said for the Ise Shrine, where the continuity of the pavilions’ shape is idealised; the uninterrupted repetition of the rebuilding practices is somewhat of a legend and the layout of the buildings on the site is a 20th century reproduction of an older one. Although well-known, history often forgets this piece of information.

13From the Adriana villa (built based on a vivid memory in Tivoli) – to Kinkaku (the temple of the Golden Pavilion rebuilt on its ashes in Kyôto), to Ginkaku (inspired by a model other than the legend) – and to the Getty villa (built based on a vague memory in Los Angeles), are these examples of evoking the past by reproducing and restoring it? Perhaps quite simply, a building is an object of memory before being one of history.

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