Knowlton School of Architecture (2005-2009) (Evan)

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    KSA Japan Day 6: Ise Shrine

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 19, '13 4:54 AM EST

    Though it was a significant detour (on the way from Yokohama to Nagoya) there was no way we could pass up visiting Ise Shrine.

    Ise shrine is widely lauded as the best extant example of Shinto architecture, free of the influence of Buddhism. Given the syncretic nature of Japan's traditional religious architecture, it's not always easy to distinguish Shinto Shrines from Buddhist Temples, but at Ise the Shinto approach becomes incredibly clear. The structures here are unpainted and apparently untreated, allowed to express their tectonic truth through expert craftsmanship and honest revelation of material. There is no ornament to speak of, only the refinement and subtle elaboration of construction  techniques from vernacular building traditions. (As we would see later, the "horns" of the shrine, the stone column bases, the woods tile roof, all have direct precedent in the Minka farmhouse typology).

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Ise Shrine is its temporality. The Shrine is now, and has traditionally been reconstructed on a regular basis, on a 20 year cycle that involves the selection and cultivation of appropriate trees, the consecration of building materials, training of monks, etc, culminating in the construction of a new, identical shrine on an adjacent site, followed by the transference of the deity, and the dismantling and redistribution of the older shrine's material. Most of the time, the Shrine exists on one of two adjacent sites, but For a brief few months every 20 years, both the old and new shrines stand side by side.

    With amazing luck, the old shrine had not yet been demolished when we arrived, so we had the rare, perhaps once in a lifetime, opportunity to see the old and new shrines, side by side. We visited the inner (and most famous) shrine first, and to our disappointment the main complex could only be seen, in fragments, over a tall fence. In the distance, we could see the older perimeter wall, grey and aged, but out of reach.

    Satisfied, but a bit disappointed, we continued on to the "outer" shrine complex. Guidebooks will regularly direct tourists to the more famous inner shrine first, but I found this to be the better of the two: through luck of timing the new shrine was further down the path than the old, ensuring a good view of both. 

    Careful to get several matched-views of the old and new shrines, I worked through the compound. Like Buddhist temples, the shrine was arranged axially, with the most sacred halls to the north. Tourists were confined to the first zone within the perimeter fence, but we still had a clear view of the shrine's plan organization. The new shrine, freshly carved, was adorned with freshly cut tree branches, in some mysterious ritual. Viewing the old shrine - worn grey and roofs overgrown with moss - we recognized the exact configuration, aged 20 years: Fascinating and a bit uncanny.

    it's tempting to read the continual reconstruction of the shrine as representative of a cyclical cosmology - but more practically, the constant reconstruction of Japan's historical sites  (regularly destroyed by fire, war, earthquakes, tsunami, etc) is a necessity in such a disaster-prone region. The result: Japan has, perhaps more than any other 1st world nation, maintained a high level of expertise in traditional building crafts (to the point where Hong Kong, for instance, called in Japanese woodworkers to construct their Chi Lin Nunnery in an authentic way). The continual rebuilding process keeps traditional crafts alive: preservation of expertise and knowledge rather than preservation of buildings.

    We drove on to Nagoya.

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Thoughts on the M.Arch I program at the Ohio State University, 2005-2009, plus additional work with OSU as a critic and lecturer.

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