During some recent research I was introduced to an amazing building borne of a fascinating approach to heritage. The Ise Shrine, in Mie Prefecture, Japan, is said to have stood on its current site since the 8th Century, and is considered to be one of Shinto’s holiest sites. The dates of the Shrine can be difficult to verify, because all of the buildings, bridges and compound are dismantled and rebuilt afresh every 20 years to the exact same design and specification, on alternating plots adjacent to each other.
This cyclical pattern of death and rebirth is a deeply committed architectural expression of the Shinto belief in the renewal of nature, the impermanence of all things, and the inherent beauty of a finite existence (refer to Ferg’s previous thoughts on ‘wabi-sabi’ in design). This approach seems slightly difficult to comprehend from our culture of conservation in the UK, where so much effort is taken in the preservation of our original historic fabric.
The re-building of Ise is not a swift process. Several important rituals mark the preparation for the resurrection, including the Okihiki Festival, in which local villagers ceremonially drag the structural timbers for the shrine through the streets and up to the sacred site. Furthermore every rebuilding of the shrine affords the chance to teach traditional construction methods to a new generation of apprentices. Author Zhongiie Lin describes the rebuilding of Ise as “a striking presentation of the dialectic relationship between eternity and ephemerality”, and suggests the DNA of these ancient ideas are also identifiable in the great works of Japanese Modernist and Metabolist architecture.
The reason I love historic buildings is that they are a physical expression of the evolution of a culture. Demonstrable evidence of where we have come from, and the yard stick by which we can measure society’s progress. When I stand inside them I feel a part of something that will exist long after I disappear; they stand testimony to humanity’s fortitude. However the Ise Shrine’s life cycles are no less meaningful in these respects – they just replace the physical artefacts that the hands can substantiate, with an oral history that the mind must accept. This belief in something for which no evidence survives feels appropriate for a building of faith – Perhaps our reverence for our own historic sacred buildings could be considered worshipping the symbols of a religion, rather than that which they symbolise?
Forever new and forever ancient, the Ise Shrine is due to begin its 62nd life cycle in Autumn 2013.