In the summer of 2010 the city centre of Amsterdam’s famous canal district was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list. The United Nations’ organisation praises the city as an ‘outstanding example of a built urban ensemble, civil engineering, town planning, construction and architectural know-how’. As an architect I should be thrilled with such high recognition of my professional field in my hometown, but I am not. I am not against preserving valuable things. My difficulty with this inscription is because of the strong focus on the image of Amsterdam, while the identity of the city, its true value, is in danger. The focus should be on the snake, not on the skin it’s left behind (…)
I am not a practicing Shintoist or Buddhist, but the way their thoughts on continuity and impermanence influenced the view on preservation inspires. It illustrates the stark contrast between the building cultures in the West and in the East, not only on the topic of preservation but also on the culture of building in general.
The Ise Shrine in Japan is one of the most striking examples of preservation and the UNESCO’s antidote. It’s a complex of 123 Shinto shrines of which the two most important ones, the Naiku and Geku shrine, are rebuilt every twenty years since the year 690 A.D. In 1993 the shrines were rebuilt for the sixty-first time and the next rebuilding (the Shikinen Sungu ceremony) is scheduled for 2013, with the preparations already well under way. In order to rebuild the shrine, its compound is divided into two sectors. One sector is in use by the current shrine, the other sector, called the kodenchi, is the empty site covered with white gravel. On this site the previous shrine was built and on it the next shrine will be built. Only one small wooden hut (oi-ya) remains on the kodenchi covering a small sacred post known as the shin-no-mihashira. The new shrine will be built over this post, in order to hide it at all times, making the posts the most sacred and mysterious objects of the entire complex.
When the time comes to rebuild, the old sanctuary will function as a model for the newly constructed shrine. The ‘original’ was naturally a ‘copy’ of a previous model. Copy-paste, but then rose to the sixty-first power. Every twenty years a startling moment occurs when the new shrine is already built and the old shrine is not dismantled yet. At that moment two shrines exist, identical and at the same time not identical, two copies and two originals, revealing what we desperately try to erase in the West: the passage of time. (…)
To accept impermanence as in vital part of our life and culture is a lesson we can learn from Japan. In order to keep our cities and their identity alive, it’s only natural to allow them to change. We should not degrade a building or a city to a witness of the past, but let it be a carrier of present day stories, dreams and memories to come. We should treat them as our favourite suit, not as our coffin.
Article published in Monu – Magazine on Urbanism #14, April 2011