One of the issue of architecture that is often controversial is the attitudes toward permanence in different cultural contexts. The differences between the western conception of ‘eternity’ or ‘perpetuity’ and the Asian definition are considerable, so that methods undertaken to deal with this kind of issue are, vastly, different. In western civilization, from ancient times to the modern society, buildings are essentially considered as physical objects to conquer the erosion of time.
As John Ruskin stated in his ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’, “when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, not for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for… “. 2 In other words, architecture, considered in western context, belongs to all time rather than particular era or individuals. In addition, it is also asserted that people who live in present have the responsibility to keep and protect those ancient buildings intentionally and carefully for later generations.
Therefore, for the purpose of eternity, buildings were constructed with materials of strongest durability and were ensured to achieve maximum resilience during their lifetime. 4 However, an undeniable fact is that buildings were indeed destroyed during wars and disasters, or simply cannot overcome the erosion of time, no matter how strongest materials were used or experienced technique adopted. In Europe, countless wars have led to a large amount of monumental landmarks.
The West, based on this situation, chose to preserve the ruins as a way to continue its eternity. That is why classical Greece and Rome have always been taken as examples of repertory of the past and the Pantheon are still in use with its original materials and form. 6 “We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours”. 7 As a result, the most adorable way for the West towards permanence is material preservation, and the aim of preservation is to achieve endurance in perpetuity. In addition, based on Ruskin’s writings on architecture, buildings from ancient times function more like instruments to remind people their memory of the past.
In this way, the permanence achieved is not only the buildings (or physical relics) themselves, but also the entire human history. 8 From this point of view, material preservation seems necessary because of its function to connect the present with the past. Nevertheless, the truth is buildings have been an unreliable means of prolonging memory. People at present admire the beauty and appreciate the history of a survived relic or monument without even remembering who or what it commemorated. Preservation do not perpetuate the memory of the past but segregate it instead. Furthermore, it has been argued that material preservation hinders the creativity of the future as too much dead heritage accumulated and there is no room for new things to begin. 10 The relics, which the West preserved, are stones and the physical structure rather than their virtues, inherent ideas and culture.
In contrast, China, with the oldest living civilization, appears an interesting feature: monumental absence of the past. 1 Most ancient cities in China nowadays present themselves with relatively new and modern look to the West, at least without an accumulation of dead historical monuments. 12 Different from the western attitude towards permanence and the erosion of time, the Chinese consider “the transient nature of the construction is like an offering to the voracity of time”. 13 As a result, instead of chasing durability like the westerns, the Chinese architecture adore materials that are perishable and fragile, which naturally lead to destruction and frequently reconstruction.
Take Soochow as an example, there are no ruins in the city although once it was one of the greatest cities in China. Unlike Athens and Rome which was built mainly with hewn stones to overcome the erosion of the time, Soochow was full of wood structures and brick buildings. 15 However, it does not mean that the Chinese does not treasure its past time. It actually achieves eternity not through buildings but its people and its human experience. 16 Therefore, preservation in Chinese tradition is not a dominant part when considering permanence.
The Great Pagoda in Soochow is now still regarded as a historic building after several times damaging and rebuilding, although its form has been changed from original eleven floors to a ruin of seven floors. The Chinese do not lodge its history in buildings or consider its physical relics as signs of eternity. Instead, the Chinese treat its past as means to maintain its present and make new ones to take place. 17 Soochow today is still repositories of the past, but in a different way that beyond the material.
Its permanence lies within its people (or the builders) and the experience gained from the past. 18 When it comes to Japan, the attitude towards permanence is somehow similar to what the Chinese have. The custom of dismantling and rebuilding the Ise Shrine every twenty years makes clear that it is not the building itself that the Japanese want to preserve, it is something else —- the style and the essence within the style. 19 What the Japanese want to be perpetuated during the repeated process are the craftsmen’s techniques and the ritual of recreation. 0 Although there are various examples in Western history showing that buildings were reconstructed or replaced, the intention was quite different from the Japanese. Much of the western architecture were rebuilt due to reasons of damage or defects; Also, the reconstruction required same (even original) materials to return to the original form and function. In contrast, a lot of buildings even landmarks in Japan were demolished in good conditions by regular time basis.
21 The reconstruction has already been elevated to ritual, and it is the human experience that will perpetuate during the continuous retrofit. 2 In a nutshell, from the ancient times to modern era, the Western civilization and the Chinese tradition hold different attitudes toward the way of achieving the permanence through architecture. The West, such as Rome and Greek, regard preserving physical relics as a way to challenge the time and eventually achieve permanence; China and Japan, however, consider that material substances are not the one which will last forever, everything that immobile cannot overcome the erosion of time. It is the experience, minds, style and essence that will perpetuate and worth to preserve.