Preserve / Restore / Rebuild / Renovate: The archipelagos of mystical thought in Japan and Europe

Preserve / Restore / Rebuild / Renovate: The archipelagos of mystical thought in Japan and Europe

Japan has developed an original strategy for fighting against erosion of its monuments: periodic rebuilding. Once in twenty years, the old edifices of the sanctuary of Ise Picture 1 serve as models before being razed to the ground in order to build those of the new temple on an adjacent land. The continuity of this practice and the use of a model described since the VIth century, bestows this sanctuary with an authenticity: a form of edifices handed down by the ritualistic repetition of the act of building.

The sanctuary of Ise is a case in point, even exemplary. The practice of rebuilding known as shikinen-sengû at Ise is found in conjugated forms for the entire Shinto, palatine and Buddhist architecture: the time periods between cases of rebuilding could vary, the scale and places of edifices rebuilt are likely to change, materials could be replaced and the presence of the model is not a hard and fast rule. (In that case the expression shikinen-zôtai or simply zôtai will be more prevalent.) Picture 2, Picture 3, Picture 4, Picture 5

Thus, in Japan, since the dawn of historical periods, an edifice could have been rebuilt several decades after it had been dismantled or destroyed, in some other place and to some other scale, using different or partially renewed materials. These rebuilding practices stray away from preservation or restoration in the modern sense of the word and are more similar to a work of restitution Picture 6, Picture 7, Picture 8, Picture 9, Picture 10. Should we settle for considering these old and modern renovations as edifices representing the era in which they were built, or on the contrary, could we consider them as monuments that are characteristic of the times they are trying to bring back? That is what emerges after reading classics on history of Japanese architecture. Historians claim that many edifices are in possession of a past older than their materials, of a past older than their construction. Thus, they consider the main pavilion of the imperial palace (the shishinden) – constructed in 1855 with the intention of finding the form of the Heian era –, as an architecture representing the Heian era (middle of the Xth century – end of the XIIth century). Taken up by a long tradition of rebuilding and restoration, the Japanese historians maintain that the act of building traditionally depends on evoking the past and they even go as far as highlighting the memory tactics (transfer of handicrafts know-how, continuity of rebuilding works, oral transmission of legends, etc.) as a criteria for authenticity. It is in this way that history books on Japanese architecture seem to break away from one principle of The Classical Foundations of Modern History in the West: the order of time.

This architecture often deprived of patina has placed the Japanese architectural practices and those of the west at opposite extremes to the extent that it was forgotten that Japan has also authentic edifices as far as their materiality is concerned Picture 11, Picture 12, Picture 13, Picture 14, Picture 15, Picture 16. However that may be, do the Japanese temporal concepts remain historical or do they place the Japanese monuments in imaginary times? And, is it certain that this type of thinking has really been abolished in the history of western architecture?

In fact, from Augustus Pugin (1812–1852) to Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983), the European historians mainly explained the progress of the societies (stylistic, technical, and spatial) through architectural transformations. Not that the idea was false, but it considerably restricted the structure of their works that depended on timelines punctuated by collections of monuments. But, to imagine this structure in writing books on history of architecture – where each monument generally serves only to represent one single era –, it is necessary to have assumed in advance that the act of building is a creative art in which the new edifice transcends time without getting deteriorated. This precept that is fundamental for writing such works, eliminates questions concerning the deterioration of edifices (decrepitude or restoration) and certain reasons for their constructions (commemoration, renovation or creation). But, more than that, this precept is an ideal subterfuge to transpose monuments in their original era. Thus, since the dawn of the Victorian era – and until the middle of the XXth century, era of the development of architectural archaeology in Europe –, this same stratagem codified the general history books on western architecture. In these works, the Saint-Front de Périgueux cathedral, vastly rebuilt in the XIXth century, was more often announced as an authentic architecture of the XIIth century, and the fact that an edifice was for the most part rebuilt within a few centuries was almost never considered. Thus for a long time the monuments of the West were the archipelagos of temporal phantasmagoria.

Nowadays, in Japan and Europe, the restitutions of edifices are generally implemented only to make up for their absence. It also emerges that the graphical reproductions are flowering to the detriment of restorations that are trying to give an edifice its authentic form. Must we attribute this choice to a bout of nostalgia in the face of possible losses caused by restoration works? Or, would the choice of the period to be restored be too arbitrary in the face of the muddled-up history of an edifice? These questions bring out the fact that in Japan and Europe the temporal criteria of preservation, restoration, restitution, even creation, are in a position to upset the order of time favoured in the historical disciplines until then.

On the contrary, if we consider history and architecture to be practices of memory, the paradoxes between texts and moments are partly explained by the ubiquity of what we understand creation to be. In fact, in the act which consists in producing something new and original, the pre-existence of materials, data and experiences is understood. Thus, any preservation or restoration is intrinsically creative, in the same way as any creation or restitution preserves something of the past. Consequently, if our question were on the authenticity of an edifice, the answer that Claude Lévi-Strauss gives on the authenticity of a myth's versions throws more light on the problematic raised by all the architectural practices evoked: 'There is no true version [of a myth] of which all the others would be distorted copies or echoes. All the versions belong to the myth.'

Nowadays, the preservations of monuments as they are or restorations trying to establish connections with an old state partly translate our nostalgia for the past and our nervousness in the adventure of the present. But let us also recall that this refusal to impose marks on the old edifices is already a scar left by our era, that it does not have any precedent in history, and that this particular trait will perhaps be the subject of a new strophe in the allegory of architectural creation.

From time immemorial, architecture was a favourite stepping stone to embark on The Conquest of the Past. Many poets have actually seen a time machine in it. And, for many of them, the illusion of having succeeded was so poignant that the edifice was like a mirror where romantic souvenirs and reality merged. Thus, In search of Lost Time, many poets were inspired by architecture and found a refuge in its history where monuments are fantasized. And the complicity between craftsmen and poets was sometimes of such intensity that architecture and its history are still the archipelagos of myth.

To conclude, I will follow a custom of comparative studies on the history of monuments between Japan and Europe: evoke the Parthenon by comparison with the sanctuary of Ise. Le Corbusier was horrified when he first visited the Parthenon. The temple seemed like a ‘monster' to him, because the restorers had made the more recent constructions disappear from the site, leaving the monument alone and timeless. Did the one who wanted to raze down the old Paris have pangs of nostalgia when the marks imposed by time disappeared? In this restoration of the Parthenon – XXth century version of the edifice – did the archaeologists want to return the edifice to its original site or did they want to restore the picturesque and exotic image that we had conceived then about ancient Greece? The monument's and the site's restoration actually edified a phantasmagoria. But don't we find the same attitude in the sanctuary of Ise, where the continuity of the pavilions' shape is idealized, the uninterrupted repetition of the rebuilding practices is a legend, the layout of the edifices on the site is a XXth century reproduction of an older one Picture 17 … Although well-known, this information is, in history, more often entrusted to the forgotten kingdom.

From the Adriana villa (edified on a live memory at Tivoli) – to Kinkaku (golden pavilion rebuilt on its ashes at Kyôto) Picture 18, to Ginkaku (inspired by a model other than the legend) Picture 19 – till the Getty villa (built on a dead memory in Los Angeles), isn't it a question of a same intention corresponding to the desire of evoking the past by reproducing it, by restoring it? And perhaps quite simply, a building is an object of memory before being one of history.

List of photographs

Picture 1 - Ise-jingû-naikû (inner sanctuary of Ise), attick pavilion (mishinenomikura), on the 02/11/2002, prefecture of Mie, city of Ise, [ref.084a57b44c], © J.S.C.
The sanctuary of Ise, which is also called the Ô-Ise-san, Ise-jingû, Dai-jingû, or quite simply Jingû, includes two major sanctuaries: the inner sanctuary, the Kôtai-jingû, and the outer sanctuary, the Toyouke-dai-jingû, about seven and a half kilometers from one another. Two major divinities – the ancestral divinity of the Imperial House, Amateratsu-Ômikami, and the divinity of food, Toyouke-Ômikami – are venerated there respectively. The two sacred domains where the two divine palaces are constructed also house fourteen major auxiliary sanctuaries, bekkû, and hundred and nine sanctuaries including the sessha, massha and shokansha. These two sacred domains are declared as taboo places, isolated by water, mountains and hidden in the middle of a thick forest of huge Japanese cypres. In the entire country, many shintô sanctuaries are subordinated in Jingû.
The pavilions of Ise-jingû were reconstructed in 1993, but their form would have been preserved through several reconstructions since the VIIth century at least.

Picture 2 - Izumo-taisha, on 08/2002, Prefecture of Shimane, city of Izumo, [ref.panorama], © J.S.C.
The existence of this shintô sanctuary is confirmed since the VIIth century. Shikinen-zôtai was practised there. The current edifices date back to 1874, they were reconstructed on the model of those of the previous ones, dated 1744.

Picture 3 - Nishina Shinmeigû, honden and haiden, on 17/09/2002, Prefecture of Nagano, city of Oomachi ; [ref.179a11b7c], © J.S.C.
In this shintô sanctuary shikinen-zôtai was practised. The last reconstruction took place in 1636.

Picture 4 - Kamosu-jinja, honden and haiden, on 08/2002, Prefecture of Shimane, city of Matsue ; [ref.109a11b2c], © J.S.C.
In this shintô sanctuary shikinen-zôtai was practised. The current edifices were reconstructed in 1583.

Picture 5 - Sumiyoshi-taisha, honden, on 26/11/2002, city of Osaka, [ref.222a23b2c], © J.S.C.
The Sumiyoshi-taisha is a shintô sancturay situated in Osaka, old city of Naniwa. This sanctuary followed the shikinen-zôtai ritual. The current honden (major pavilion) dates back to 1410. Also, the pavilions of this sanctuary would testify to an older form, of a model form: that of Daijô-kyû. A veritable celestial palace, it was supposedly reconstructed in duplicate, since the VIth century, every time a new Emperor was consecrated. However, immediately after the ceremony was over, the celestial palace was destroyed.

Picture 6 - Kyôto Gosho, shishinden, le 11/08/2005, ville de Kyôto, [ref.142a13b6c], © J.S.C.
After the transfer of the capital of Heijô-kyô (Nara) to Heian-kyô (Kyôto) in the VIIIth century, the buildings of the imperial palace were several times prey to flames (sixteen fires between 960 and 1227). After every destruction, total or partial, reconstruction works were undertaken. In the course of these periods of restoration, the court temporarily occupied the residences of aristocrats. After many destructions and reconstructions, the original site of the palace was abandoned and the emperors lived permanently in these substitute residences. Thus, it was only a little after the war between the two imperial dynasties of the Nampokuchô period (1333-1392) that the imperial palace of Kyôto occupied the current site.
The buildings of the imperial palace are not for all that of this period. The two main edifices of the palace, the shishinden and the seiryôden, date back to 1855: they are the reconstitutions of previous edifices built in 1790 that have disappeared in the 1854 fire.

Picture 7 - Nanzen-ji, hôjô, on 03/12/2004, city of Kyôto, [ref.171a11b7c], © J.S.C.
The pavilion of Nanzen-ji called daihôjô is an old seiryôden of the imperial palace. Constructed in 1590, it was transferred to Nanzen-ji during the reconstruction of the palace in 1611.

Picture 8 - Heian-jingû, taigokuden, on 30/09/2005, city of Kyôto, [ref.054bisa12b4c], © J.S.C.
The Heian-jingû, shintô sanctuary, was constructed in 1895, anniversary date of the eleventh centenary of the foundation of Heian-kyô (current Kyoto). The pavilions were first of all the symbol of the ‘Fourth Exhibition of the Internal Industry' before becoming those of the current sanctuary. These edifices are a reconstitution of the pavilions of the imperial palace of Kyoto as it in the VIIIth century. Two architects of importance, Itô Chûta and Kigo Kiyotaka, ensured the accuracy of this restitution (scale 5/8th). To execute this project, they depended on the work of Uramatsu Kôzei, entitled Daidairizu Kôshô (written between 1758-1788), a work that had already served as a basis to restitute the imperial palace in 1790.

Picture 9 - Yakushi-ji, tôtô, on 16/12/2002, Nara, Nara, [ref.249a14b5c], © J.S.C.

Picture 10 - Yakushi-ji, sanjûnotô (three storey pagoda with three mokoshi, 1981), on 16/12/2002, Nara, Nara, [ref.249a24b10c], © J.S.C.
In the confines of the Yakushi-ji, Bhuddist temple situated in Nara, ancient imperial capital named Heijô-kyô, the Eastern pagoda, constructed in 730, is the only authentic building. Dating back to the VIIIth century, it was (re)constructed on the occasion of the transfer of the imperial capital– in this case of Fujiwara-kyô at Heijô-kyô – and even Yakushi-ji. At this time, this temple had two identical pagodas. The Western one was destroyed in a fire in 1528. It was reconstructed identical to the previous one, its twin sister, and terminated in 1981.

Picture 11 - Hôryû-ji, hondô, on 27/11/2002, Prefecture of Nara, city of Ikagura, [ref.073a715b7c], © J.S.C.
The Hôryû-ji, Buddhist monastery situated in the city of Ikaruga, South of Nara, has the oldest Buddhist constructions of Japan. The hondô (major pavilion) and the pagoda of this monastery date back to the end of the VIIth century – beginning of VIIIth century.

Picture 12 - Jôdo-ji, jôdodô or amidadô, rear façade, on 26/10/2002, Prefecture of Hyôgo, city of Ono, [ref.095a22b7c], © J.S.C.
This pavilion is one of the rarest constructions built by the Monk Chôgen to whom we owe the architectural order called daibutsu (order of the great Buddha). This pavilion dates back to 1192.

Picture 13 - Fuki-ji, pavilion Ôdô, Prefecture of Ôita, Bungo-Takada, on 08/2002, [ref.043a12b12c], © J.S.C.
This temple also called Fuki-dera was founded in 718. The Ôdô dates back to the XIIth century.

Picture 14 - Kitano Tenmangû, honden ishinoma haiden gakunoma, on 08/2002, city of Kyoto, [ref.124a12b44c], © J.S.C.
The buildings of the shintô sanctuary of the Kitano-Tenmangû, situated in the North-West of Kyoto, are constructions dating back to the XVIIth century.

Picture 15 - Nikkô-Tôshôgû, honden, ishinoma, haiden, on 19/09/2002, Tochigi, Nikkô, [ref.175a36b6c], © J.S.C.
Picture 16 - Nikkô-Tôshôgû, Yômeimon, on 19/09/2002, Tochigi, Nikkô, [175a46b4c], © J.S.C.
The Nikkô-Tôshôgû is a shintô sanctuary dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616). The works had started in 1617 to end in the following year, and then Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651) undertook a great repair work from 1634 to 1636.

Picture 17 - Ise-jingû-naikû, auxiliary sanctuary Aramatsurinomiya, on 02/11/2002, Prefecture of Mie, city of Ise, [ref.084a67b12c], © J.S.C.
See the key of the photograph n°1. Reconstruction of 1993.

Picture 18 - Rokuon-ji (Kinkaku-ji), Kinkaku (golden pavilion), on 13/09/2002, city of Kyoto, [ref.122a12b5c], © J.S.C.
The Kinkaku was constructed in 1398 following Yoshimitsu's needs (1358-1408), third shôgun of the Ashikaga. This pavilion is of a palatine architecture, i.e. a residential building of a man in power, but it is also a chapel, a place of retreat and meditation. In 1950, a fire destroyed this pavilion. Its duplicate was reconstructed from 1955.

Picture 19 - Jishô-ji (Ginkaku-ji), Ginkaku (silver pavilion), on 14/12/2004, city of Kyoto, [ref.093a33b11c], © J.S.C.
Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) constructed this pavilion in 1483. It was in the course of the first half of the epoch of Edo that the pavilion of Buddha Kannon took the popular name of Ginkaku. At least from that time, a legend says that Yoshimasa, Yoshimitsu's grandson, was inspired by his grandfather's pavilion (golden pavilion) to construct his own. His desire would have been to cover this place of retreat with silver leaves, which never happened really. No proof testifies to this truth of this legend: the Ginkaku would have been built on a very different model, the shariden (pavilion of relics) of the Saihô-ji, a pavilion that does not exist today.