LOST Magazine
About Us

Subscribe Now


Print This Article    Print This Article

Email This Article    Email This Article

Reversing the Culture of Destruction

by Anthony M. Tung

On the forsaken loveliness of Kyoto's architectural heritage

Because Kyoto was spared the bombings of World War II, the preservation of the traditional cityscape here has taken on special historical significance. The wooden dwellings that remain in Kyoto are nearly all that is left of prewar urban Japan.

— Diane Durston, Kyoto:  Seven Paths to the Heart of the City

Of course there was nothing wrong with wanting to "modernize" the environment in which people lived, in the sense of making it more hygienic, more comfortable, more practical. But the question is, was it really necessary to destroy so much of the traditional environment and culture in the interests of modernization?

— Matsahumi Yamasaki, Kyoto:  Its Cityscape, Traditions, and Heritage

The wind jostles red paper lanterns in the city's hidden gardens, and the incidental sound seems to be part of a conscious aesthetic plan. Behind the property walls that separate old buildings from the street, each stone, plant, and piece of bamboo is artfully arranged in simple compositional harmony. Even the drip of water from roof eaves is composed. Historic Japan is a state of mind, an exquisite aesthetic balance of the physical components of existence. Outside, in the bustle of the contemporary city, it is numbing to see that so much ancient beauty has been destroyed. Kyoto opens a door to Japan's uniquely glorious architectural past, and just as abruptly shuts it. The city is both a singular compilation of the Japanese built heritage and the victim of rampant modernization. Many serene and glorious fragments of the past are scattered across the urban landscape, but disconnected within a sea of chaotic modern development. To the outsider, one question persists above all others: How could a people who invented such a refined and singular loveliness so completely forsake their own heritage? Why was so much of the beauty of Kyoto abandoned by the Japanese?


Historic Japan:  Embrace of the Ephemeral  

The unique medieval architectural culture that evolved in Japan over many centuries has had an enormous impact on the thinking of modern architects and artists. Medieval Japanese architecture employed a formal minimalism, clarity of structural expression, heightened sensitivity to the character of materials, and repetition of modular architectonic elements — aesthetic devices that would be adopted around the world hundreds of years later, with the advent of Western industrialization.

While modularization and minimalism in buildings made of such durable materials as glass, metal, and concrete would be developed in Western architecture in order to secure the economic advantages of machine-manufactured building materials, the architectural aesthetics of handcrafted structures in medieval Japan grew out of a pragmatic response to environmental conditions and a decision by the Japanese to make buildings easily replaceable, to make them temporary rather than permanent. This approach to architecture and city building is, of course, fundamentally different from the goal of Western urban culture, which is to create structures and cities that will be durable. In the West, the vicissitudes of nature are to be resisted, but in medieval Japan it was impractical to defy a violent and unpredictable setting that regularly brought typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and torrential rainfall. In Japan, buildings and cities needed to bend with the strong natural forces that acted on them. Moreover, the extreme humidity fostered dense rain forests that made for an uncongenial environment for human habitation, and Japanese buildings would have to take this condition into consideration.

Thus the Japanese constructed wood-frame buildings that could flex when subjected to strong winds and seismic tremors, or could be easily reconstructed and repaired if they were severely damaged. To forestall rot from the rain and humidity, buildings were perched on wooden posts raised above the earth; when earthquakes occurred, the violent forces unleashed in the ground were not transmitted upward. Sliding walls made of light wood frames covered by translucent paper, known as shojis, allowed buildings to be opened up to cooling and drying breezes. This also reduced the interconnected and fixed components of buildings to a minimum, heightening the structural flexibility. Floors were covered with tatami — rectilinear straw mats of standardized dimensions. The proportions of rooms were based on the number of tatamis needed to cover the space. (In Kyoto the standard size of a tatami mat was, and is, 94.5 centimeters by 189 centimeters.) Because this basic building component had an established universal size, many other building elements could be mass-produced, at lower cost, with greater efficiency.

When structures were destroyed, parts from one building could be reused in the restoration of another. This was particularly important in cities, whose highly flammable structures were vulnerable to accidental fires as well as to the fires that erupted during historic periods of constant warfare. When fires grew out of control in urban areas, firebreaks to limit the spread of conflagrations could be quickly opened up by deconstructing buildings. Afterward these could be reassembled in their original location or moved to a different site. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the form of the Japanese city came to reflect its combustibility. As the great stone castles of the daimyos, or feudal overlords, arose in the middle of urban settlements, the surrounding wooden city was considered expendable and was not protected by walls. And it was a common practice, in times of hostilities, for the defenders of cities to burn their wooden precincts in order to protect the castle.

The interiors of Japanese houses were sparse, rectilinear, and colored by the muted hues of natural materials — the soft cream color of tatami and the enveloping paper-white of shoji. As various interior shojis were opened or closed, the interior spaces were altered in number and dimension. Objects and furniture were kept to a minimum and could be readily stored away out of sight, allowing rooms to change their function as well as their size. When exterior screens were opened, the interior spaces were extended to include the intense greens of the private gardens.

Except in the tenement houses of the very poor, gardens were an integral part of most buildings in the traditional Japanese city. Temples, shrines, and palaces were composed of compounds of buildings engulfed in gardens and surrounded by perimeter walls. Garden houses of samurai retainers were modest versions of the same idea. The shop-houses of merchants and craftsmen (machinami), which made up the largest part of the historic cityscape, commonly had a private garden situated in the center of each plot, which was otherwise totally hidden by buildings.

When the rooms of Japanese buildings were open to gardens, interiors assumed a profoundly different character from that of Western structures. Absence of exterior walls allowed the changeable and unpredictable reality of nature to become a visual and sensory element in the controlled microenvironment fabricated by humans. In the West, walls, doors, and windows were a shield that protected interiors from the uncertainties of the outside world. In Japan, all such barriers to nature could be drawn aside in good weather, and the natural growth of gardens could become part of the interior space.

The response of the Japanese to destruction, from both natural forces and armed conflict, was part of an interwoven material, spiritual, and philosophical culture. Minimalism in the physical environment reflected the depth of meaning that was found in each human-made object. Beauty in a teacup, a robe, a scroll painting, or a door handle represented the efforts to invest life with meaning, even though human appreciation of such beauty, and the objects themselves, were but fleeting moments of grace in an inexorable passage to nonexistence.


Historic Kyoto:  The Capital City of Treasures

Established in 794 by Emperor Kwammu, the street plan of Kyoto was influenced by the traditions of Chinese capital cities. It was laid out on a vast orthogonal grid of wide principal avenues oriented to the points of the compass, with the walled precinct of the emperor's palace situated at the city's center. Historians estimate that soon after its founding, the former capital had half a million inhabitants. From 1467 to 1568, during the period of the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States), the beautiful historic buildings that had been constructed in Kyoto were devastated. Under the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, from 1582 to 1598, the city was rebuilt.

From 1603 to 1867, during the Tokugawa shogunate — a military regime that used the wealth accrued from large feudal estates to support massive standing armies — the political capital of Japan was moved to Edo, which was eventually renamed Tokyo. Kyoto remained the residence of the emperor and the center of Japan's traditional culture. In order to curtail the potential political strength of the emperors, the Tokugawa shoguns often compelled new emperors to retire soon after reaching maturity. Thus many former rulers lived in religious communities at the fringes of Kyoto in compounds richly endowed with attractive buildings and gardens. With its palaces for the emperor and shogun, and its numerous shrines, temples, and houses for court officials, Kyoto became an extended treasury of Japanese art and architecture, containing a greater wealth of monuments than any other historic capital city in Japan.

In 1864 the Great Tenmei Fire devastated 80 percent of the city, with particularly terrible effects in closely packed residential and commercial areas. These areas, once again, were rebuilt consistent with historic traditions. Japan first encountered European traders in the sixteenth century, but these interactions were limited by a policy of national isolationism under the Tokugawa shogunate. As a result, the country's medieval culture was sustained until the Meiji Restoration in 1867, when the government began a concentrated effort to industrialize. In a remarkably brief period of time Japan transformed itself into a modern global power. During the first phase of this metamorphosis, prior to World War II, Western building types and trolleys were introduced along the principal avenues of Kyoto's grid. Since the new buildings were generally consistent in height with the traditional cityscape that surrounded them, the basic hierarchical relationship of Kyoto's parts — of low residential areas to taller monuments to the mountains that enveloped and rose above the city — was retained.

Extensive firebombing during World War II severely damaged all but a handful of important Japanese cities, dramatically reducing the nation's architectural patrimony. Sixty of Japan's largest towns were 40 percent destroyed, and the damage was particularly terrible in areas of wooden structures. This was by design. Incendiary bombing techniques had been refined by the United States military during the test-destruction of mock Japanese wooden residential environments constructed in Florida. Unlike the strategic bombing of industrial, transport, governmental, and military installations, the firebombing of Japanese cities was aimed at the general populace and the places where they lived. Those few cities that were spared, such as Kyoto and Nara (an earlier imperial capital of ancient Japan), though altered by the first stages of modernization, were still largely intact as medieval historic constructions. These former traditional capitals became the last opportunity to save representative manifestations of Japan's unique historic urban culture.

During the postwar era, the country's avid embrace of modernism, the practical need to rebuild decimated urban environments, and a national recovery plan oriented toward rapid urban growth dramatically escalated the pace of urban change. This heightened the conflict between modern development and historic architectural conservation. And historic Kyoto was engulfed by a wave of urban transformations.


The Clash with Permanence

Sudden modernization of Japanese cities resulted in an extreme clash of cultural, social, economic, and environmental values. As the country's feudal form of authoritarian government evolved into a modern representative democracy, the process of industrialization intensified. Delicate handmade cityscapes of wood, paper, straw, bamboo, bark, clay tile, and mud stucco were abruptly crowded with structures made of concrete, steel, and glass. And although Japan's historic cities were far larger than early European industrial cities (Edo-Tokyo had long housed more than a million people when cities like London, New York, Paris, and Berlin were only a quarter as large), modernization caused the country's urban areas to expand tenfold and more. In a nation where dramatic change was occurring simultaneously in all spheres of social organization and private life, the problem of conserving the urban architectural heritage of Japan became highly complex, requiring a reevaluation of the basic ideas influencing the form and organization of historic cities such as Kyoto, an analysis that would occur only after several decades of destruction had already taken place.

Achieving contemporary standards for fire safety in cities made of wood was difficult. Close proximity of highly flammable structures makes fire hard to contain, and modern interior amenities such as plumbing, heating, and electric systems were difficult to install in old wooden houses. Moreover, as growing numbers of contemporary Japanese adopted Western furniture, tatami mats became impractical. These changes, together with the constant need for maintenance and renewal, made wooden residential structures increasingly less desirable as permanent investments, while the development of reinforced concrete offered an alternative building material that was resistant to fires and earthquakes.

A fundamental historic change was occurring. Prior to industrialization, the Japanese cityscape was a living aesthetic continuum of changing visual sensibilities rooted in traditions from the country's medieval culture. Modernization brought to an end this centuries-long cultural evolution and altered the meaning of old structures. Now they were the material evidence of an abandoned culture of building from a closed period of the past.

Japan began to construct permanent cities in the modern Western mode. Yet almost every concept in the modern Western vocabulary of preservation — permanence; ease of maintenance, replication, and replacement; authenticity — had a fundamentally different philosophical meaning to the Japanese. A primary difference was that continuation of major wooden monuments in Japan was ensured through periodic maintenance. As in China, important buildings were disassembled and rebuilt several times during a century. In general, complete disassembly occurred about once every 300 years, half-dismantling every 150 years, and partial reassembly, particularly of roofs, at more frequent intervals of 50 to 25 years. During reconstruction, stylistic changes were sometimes introduced into historic structures. The Shrines of the Ise Prefecture, whose exact replication has long been held important, were an exception. First constructed in the third century, they have been torn down and renewed every 20 years, or about 60 times. The continuity of the social and general physical presence of landmarks — the perpetuation of their spirit — was the primary objective, rather than exact duplication of the historic object.

To further complicate urban conservation, the Japanese attitude to the public realm of the historic cityscape was different from the West's. In ancient Japanese cities, emphasis was not placed on the development of the street as an environment of symbolic architectural forms. Most historic public ways were meant simply to serve as utilitarian passages. Along the lanes in residential areas of garden houses, walls built along property lines were not designed as major embellishments but as security for buildings with sliding doors made of paper. The most significant elements of architectural assemblages were hidden from public view. In the European city, street facades were the most critical aesthetic side of buildings, making the streetscape a rich accumulation of fixed form. But even in those parts of the Japanese city where structures did have a principal facade facing the public way — in commercial areas — such buildings were not grand architectural statements, whether on wide major avenues or in the numerous smaller streets and alleys that divided the giant quadrants of Kyoto's grid into many smaller blocks. Here, the front facades of buildings were composed of moving architectural elements that opened up to reveal the inside of shops during the day, and that closed down at night. Street walls consisted of elevations in flux rather than fixed facades of constant aesthetic impact.

Yet although historic streetscapes in Japan were not composed with the same goal as public circulation spaces in the European tradition, nonetheless the architectural parts of Japanese streets achieved a singular aesthetic continuity. In garden house residential areas, minimally adorned walls and gateways, with the peaks of houses and trees rising up in the background, produced an environment of sparse tranquility. In the commercial thoroughfares when shop-fronts were open, the streetscape became a colorful bazaar teeming with paper and cloth signage. When shop facades were closed, a rich texture of carefully crafted, minimalist wooden building components lined the public way.

In both these environments, simple elements like drain spouts, doorways, doorknobs, the pattern of rocks in a wall, the joints in a wooden fence, the construction of paper and wood lanterns, the undulating patterns of roof tiles, the arrangement of paving stones in the street, the calligraphy on cloth banners, the contrast of color and texture between the natural irregularities of bamboo, the straight lines of meticulously crafted wooden framing, and the opaque flatness of stucco — all revealed a heightened visual sensibility to the primary relationship of textures, shapes, and materials. Much effect was gained from the accrual of myriad small and subtle aesthetic gestures.

Early European visitors to Japan often considered such traditional streetscapes monotonous and devoid of visual interest. But after industrialization and the emergence of the modern artistic movement, contemporary artists and architects from the West found these same environments filled with discriminating visual meaning. The minimalist beauty created by the Japanese pervaded the human-made environment on multiple levels. In this setting, the uncontrollable aesthetic incidents of nature — the changing pattern of falling snow, the trembling arc of cherry trees bending in the wind, the slow drip of water from a spout — acquired an evanescent loveliness when seen in contrast to the simple and synthesized forms of the human-made world.

In the context of world architectural evolution, historic Kyoto was a unique cultural variation, an extended checkerboard of myriad private open spaces and beautifully made structures of closely interlocking handcrafted parts. The city was endowed profusely with extensive architectural complexes — in all, about 2,000 temples, shrines, and villas. These included places of such aesthetic refinement as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle, the Imperial Palace, the Katsura Imperial Villa, and the rock garden of the Ryoanji Temple. Its innumerable secluded gardens — in machinami, garden houses, palaces, and temples — were of delicate and carefully balanced sensibility. While any building or garden might be lost in a moment, they would be quickly replaced with other equally temporal structures reflecting an aesthetic culture that persisted regardless of the vulnerability of their material products. Five of the forested hills that surrounded the city were illuminated by fires every year on August 16 in a ceremony honoring the souls of departed ancestors. In a low-scale cityscape, this view outward from private gardens was common and prized, a contrast of fragile human-made environmental art with the immutable beauty of nature. Now an era had dawned, when fixed modern Western urban architecture and infrastructure of permanent materials would be inserted into the largely unbroken historic continuum of a city that had embraced its transience.


The Fracturing of Kyoto

As modernization proceeded, the wide main streets of traditional Kyoto, like those of Beijing, readily lent themselves to streetcars and automotive traffic. And the main transportation vectors of the city, also like those of Beijing, became the principal focus of modern development. In this regard, both historic cities were fractured in the same way. Each had pockets of old low-rise architecture set within the areas off principal boulevards. On the main avenues, modern development of strikingly different materials, height, massing, and aesthetic character splintered the traditional milieu.

At different times during this transformation, various nationwide and local policies affecting land use had detrimental repercussions. At one point, for instance, contemporary fire regulations forced the owners of historic buildings to remove traditional wooden architectural elements from street facades and add modern aluminum window sashes. Meanwhile, the introduction of mass transit — first streetcars and later a subway — increased the value of property at the center of the city, where traditional buildings were one and two stories tall. Real estate speculation and zoning laws that allowed dramatically increased building heights drove land prices upward and spawned taller modern structures at arbitrary locations throughout the historic milieu, leaving few blocks of old neighborhoods untouched. The extent to which out-of-scale structures are dispersed across the historic city is staggering even when compared to such chaotic urban landscapes as those of Beijing and Cairo. For many centuries, the peaks of the traditional city had been formed by palaces, temples, and shrines. Now these ancient landmarks were subsumed in a jagged sea of larger modern constructions.

Rising property taxes and values, in combination with excessive national inheritance taxes, made it difficult for the owners of Kyoto's traditional garden houses to pass them on to family members for continued residential use. As a result, many of these houses were demolished to make way for redevelopment, with particularly egregious results in sites that overlooked the enveloping green areas of historic monuments. National conservation laws protected important individual landmarks, but the modern buildings that exploited the views frequently ruined the ambience of historic environments that surrounded shrines and temples and violated the traditional urban skyline as seen from within the compounds of ancient sanctuaries. In the modern era, the widely shared traditional vista of the hills surrounding Kyoto has in most cases been lost.

Unlike Beijing, whose modernization as the symbol of the Chinese Communist state was seen as an ideological necessity and a rejection of the past, the fracturing of Kyoto was in some part due to cultural attitudes deeply embedded in the Japanese urban tradition. Abrupt modernization placed extremely different conceptions of city construction in direct conflict and immediate juxtaposition — Western versus Japanese, permanent versus temporal, traditional architecture oriented to gardens versus contemporary architecture oriented to streets, and handcrafted versus machine-made. Moreover, in a society experimenting with democracy for the first time, traditions of public advocacy were not firmly implanted, and neither individual citizens nor whole neighborhoods spoke out. Reconciliation of these conflicting cultural forces did not occur in time to prevent pervasive visual dissonance.

Although similar aesthetic environmental disorder and fracturing can be seen in contemporary cities in the United States, particularly since World War II, the fracturing of Kyoto was especially intense. A cacophony of suspended aerial utility wiring crisscrossed old streetscapes in central historic areas and was jury-rigged to traditional wooden buildings in visually undiscriminating ways. Highways, pedestrian bridges, and rail lines pierced and hovered above the ancient milieu of handcrafted temples, machinami, and small garden houses at the city's core. A new generation of competing architectural symbols overwhelmed the skyline. Jungles of electronic signs sprouted up in business areas, covering whole neighborhoods with commercial advertisements. Surviving small wooden structures in such areas seemed minuscule when sandwiched between tall, modern blockfronts. Early modern Japanese speculative buildings were often as banal or ugly as their counterparts in the West. One, two, or three of these might invade a historic residential block, each new building jarring in its materials and design and two or three times as tall as the surrounding structures. Later, with the development of a contemporary Japanese architecture whose experimentation in modern composition produced structures of highly expressive but autonomous originality, several parts of Kyoto became a confused mixture of clashing bold designs, flashing with neon, and casting shadows over old neighboring houses that sat beneath the crisscrossing wires.

This cacophony was to some degree symptomatic of postwar Japanese urbanism in general. Traditional culture persisted in the country's new urban context, and most Japanese homes still maintained at least one tatami-mat room, but such manifestations were obviously not perceptible from the public way. The aesthetic realm of ancient Japan lay behind the walls of compounds or in the privacy of people's homes. Meanwhile, in the public domain of the cityscape, Japan created a novel modern environmental order that found meaning in complexity, contradiction, and chaos. While commercial areas such as the Ginza in Tokyo reflected an energy similar to that of Las Vegas or Times Square, the new Japanese urbanism was even more multifaceted and pervasive, reassembling various parts of the modern Western cityscape in new and startling combinations.

Numerous urbanists have contemplated the meaning of these environments. In 1966, Peter Wilson, in The Idea of the City, noted Tokyo's qualities:  "Its incomprehensible complexity (each object/event is autonomous, separated from the next by earthquake laws, by scale, by type, and by the time-delay of a fax transmission). Its apparent absence of hierarchy (conditions of downtown, quiet residential, neon zone, artificial landscape, movement corridors, and so on, are folded together, like movie cuts or hologram plates where each fragment contains the whole image). Its overall melancholic grayness (punctuated by neon galaxies and revealing on close inspection an array of infinitely subtle and variable hues). This ordered chaos is today's urban frontier:  the sedimentary consequence of media/electronic technology, an endless humming cloud."

In its rush to modernize, Japan imported much from the West. Yet what it did not import was a system of laws to protect the built historic patrimony as a holistic environment. In Europe, as the divergent character of the industrialized city became evident and the threat to integrated old environments was recognized, historic-district conservation laws evolved as a counterbalance and the traditional centers of many cities were saved. In Japan, where so little urban heritage had survived World War II, and where industrialization occurred very rapidly, recognition of the need to protect historic environments lagged.

Hence, even as an urban environment of heightened visual complexity and conflict evolved in Japan, in Western cities an international trend emerged out of the conservation ethic to make contemporary urban development relate harmoniously to its historic context. Similar policies were slow to reach Kyoto. The intense and compacted modern Japanese city — filled with competing architectural forms, commercial messages, and exposed infrastructure — was, although exciting and visually homogeneous in its chaotic density, the antithesis of the serene, handcrafted, paper-and-wood historic milieu of the ancient capital. There were few places in the world where such a contrast of extreme visual opposites coexisted, in equal and disjointed measure, in the same city.


Reinstating Kyoto's Disrupted Historic Districts

Although outside observers of the new Japanese urbanism have been cautious in describing the chaos of cities like Tokyo as disorienting and alienating — warning that such value judgments might be the result of Western cultural prejudice — the emergence of a conservation consciousness in Kyoto indicates that many Japanese themselves were dismayed by the fracturing of the city's historic ambience. This dissatisfaction with the character of contemporary urban development is reflected in a series of policy initiatives, gradually enacted in recent years, designed to slow down and even reverse the tide of change.

Kyoto was in the forefront of environmental preservation in Japan. From the time after the Meiji Restoration, from the beginning of industrialization in the nineteenth century, Kyoto's government undertook to save the hilly woodland that surrounded the city and defined its edges. Although traditions of conservation have long existed in Japan — the country's first nationwide statute, the Law for the Preservation of Ancient Shrines and Temples, was created in 1897 — such activity primarily involved religious buildings and sites. Both prior to and after World War II, and especially as the second wave of urban modernization intensified, national and local conservation laws were made more comprehensive. They were expanded to protect vernacular structures, individual monuments, and the green areas in and around landmarks. Examples include the Law for the Preservation of Historic Sites, Places of Beauty, and Natural Monuments (1919); the Law for the Preservation of National Treasures (1929); the National

Cultural Properties Act (1950); and Kyoto's municipal regulations pertaining to scenic zones (1930) and urban landscapes (1972).

In 1970, an international symposium organized by the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO and the Agency of Cultural Affairs of Japan focused on the need to develop protections for those surviving fragments of the traditional cityscape that existed outside historic complexes. The resulting new laws involved two concepts:  more rigorous local zoning controls to preserve the character of areas immediately around historic sites, defined as Aesthetic Areas in the city's land-use regulations, and the creation of a new category of national monuments called Traditional Building Preservation Districts.

The use of the municipal zoning ordinance in Kyoto to create protected zones around landmarks is similar to the effort in Beijing to control the low-scale ambience around its walled monument compounds. In both places, the degree of restriction is greatest in close proximity to landmarks and lessens as the distances from them increases. In Kyoto, these graduated controls require strict supervision of height and materials and the preservation of wood facades within immediate proximity to important historic locations, with greater allowance in secondary zones for taller contemporary buildings of different materials. In addition, inside aesthetic areas, the municipality now requires that the design of new buildings relate appropriately to historic streetscapes. Such rules safeguard environmental coherence — to the degree it still survives — in areas around temples, shrines, and palaces as well as the view outward from within monument sites.

Traditional Building Preservation Districts use a regulatory feature that is in some degree unique to Japan. By 1995, four small areas had been so designated. Each preservation district comprises a surviving urban sub-community of a different building type and character. The Sanneizaka District, designated in 1972, is made up of garden houses and shops that line the slope up to the Kiyomizu Temple. The Gion Shinbashi District (1974) is a famous and representative old geisha quarter. The Sagano Toriimoto District (1974) is a particularly beautiful thatch-roofed farming village in the mountains outside the city. The Kamigamo Shakémachi District (1988) is composed of rural garden houses built along a stream in a cluster around the Kamigano Shrine. In the late 1990s three other Traditional Building Preservation Districts were being contemplated to save other largely intact neighborhoods:  a district comprising the machinami of urban cotton weavers; a typical medieval area adjacent to a major temple at Kyoto's core; and a townscape centered around buildings for the production of sake.

This sampling of traditional urban culture, though involving only small areas of the cityscape, reveals the diversity of ancient Japanese building forms and shows how the refined aesthetics of high culture filtered down to grace the lives of people of other classes. Such vernacular examples of beauty, proportion, and graceful simplicity are a significant historical resource for the country as a whole. Moreover, the process for regulating these areas is quite unusual in terms of international urban conservation practice. Rather than attempting to establish the exact architectural composition of each old building facade, as would be done in a typical European conservation district, officials in Kyoto asked the Architecture Department at the University of Kyoto to develop prototypical design solutions for the wood facades of buildings — designs that might have existed — in these neighborhoods. Once historic-district status is officially instated, owners in these areas are required to comply with such prototypes when rehabilitating their property. In typical Western historic districts, in contrast, new buildings of contemporary design are often allowed in vacant lots, or as replacements for intrusive modern structures constructed before official design controls were instituted. Thus, over time, Kyoto's Traditional Building Preservation Districts will evolve toward a greater degree of historic verisimilitude.

This flexible approach to conservation responds to the simple reality that in Kyoto the exposed parts of wood structures rarely last longer than forty years. Thus, few of the buildings that made up such districts when they were first designated were either intact artifacts of great age or facsimiles of centuries-old historic objects. To a far greater degree than facades of masonry and stone in Europe, the highly perishable elements of historic building fronts in Kyoto have been altered many times in the century and a half since the Meiji Restoration. Moreover, the preindustrial streetscape composition of these areas was never entirely fixed, but represented instead the evolving forms of a living culture.

By allowing the owners of properties in Traditional Building Preservation Districts leeway to compose street facades within well-researched historic limits, the city government reinstates a facsimile of the abandoned historic culture. As time passes, particular architectural features in Kyoto's wood historic districts will change, but such revisions will be consistent with the spirit embodied in each traditional neighborhood. The very fact that such districts will continue to evolve represents an important part of their historic character. And it is only through the creation of these districts that Kyoto can recapture its past, because no precise record exists documenting the exact configuration of these changeable historic areas at a particular point in time prior to industrialization.

In this regard, Japan may be uniquely prepared to faithfully re-create its lost patrimony through another means as well. Its Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties has a clause establishing protection for Traditional Techniques for the Conservation of Cultural Properties. This provision empowers the national minister of education to recognize those individuals who have become masters of traditional crafts — such people are designated Living National Treasures — and to make arrangements for passing on such knowledge to future generations. In addition, in Kyoto, because so many of the city's traditional houses continue to be maintained, and classical tatami rooms have been built in many modern homes, old building crafts continue to flourish. With the creation of Traditional Building Preservation Districts, select parts of the cityscape are becoming a living museum as the facades of the city's historic buildings are shaped by the curatorial knowledge of Kyoto's architecture school and by a national effort to maintain Japan's medieval crafts.

Traditional Building Preservation Districts in Kyoto offer a very specific view of history, but a precious view nonetheless. When we walk through such areas we experience an environmental aura different from that of typical conservation districts in Western cities. In the West great effort is expended to save the actual material of old buildings, and a degree of historic eccentricity results. The earliest of the Traditional Building Preservation Districts in Kyoto — those that have been maintained for the longest period of time — share an unnatural stylistic perfection similar to that of the rebuilt Old Town of Warsaw and the historic conservation parks like Colonial Williamsburg in the United States. One notes a loss of the idiosyncrasies of urban evolution; and the material of buildings is all the same age, as if time had stopped. Yet no urban historic conservation district is a perfect window into the past, and all such areas are subject to a continuous process of change in order to accommodate alterations in the life of the city. (To help visitors understand the meaning of such places, the rules by which they are regulated could be posted.)


Reversing the Culture of Destruction

Kyoto's reinstated historic areas represent potential solutions to two continuing urban conservation dilemmas. In the 20th century, numerous historic environments of wood were severely reduced or erased in cities around the world. Today many surviving vestiges of historic wooden cities are in advanced and possibly irreversible stages of deterioration. Such constructions are often extensions of centuries-old building traditions, and in numerous cases are a continuum of medieval cultures — for example, in China, throughout Asia, and in old Islamic centers along the Silk Road and across the Middle East. The loss of these environments, which endured for many hundreds of years and then began to vanish almost simultaneously in the modern era, is one of the great conservation tragedies of the 20th century.

The Traditional Building Preservation Districts in Kyoto demonstrate a viable method for reclaiming this jeopardized past. Timeliness of action is critical. Rapidly deteriorating wooden features must be saved or recorded before all trace of original architectural elements disappears. And traditions of craftsmanship must be documented and passed on to future generations if deteriorated or lost building parts are to be accurately replaced. Finally, such areas must continue to be zoned at historic building heights. Otherwise, as in Kyoto, an economic incentive for the development of intrusive larger structures is created, resulting in the destruction and fracturing of old districts.

The importance of these developments can be seen in the struggles of two other cities — Istanbul and Beijing — to save their wooden architectural patrimony. In Istanbul, where the vernacular city of the Ottomans has become an overcrowded and deteriorating slum, conservation authorities have initiated two responses:  In some areas, the remains of historic structures are the template for re-creating old wooden buildings in new materials, thereby saving several buildings at a time at moderate cost. In other areas, each surviving element of historic wooden buildings is painstakingly restored so that as much original fabric as possible is saved, preserving buildings one at a time at great cost. Here, the speed of deterioration, driven by poverty, far outstrips the government's efforts to preserve vernacular residential areas in the old Ottoman capital.

In Beijing, the intricately carved wooden facades of mercantile buildings lining the streets in old commercial areas are quickly disappearing, as economic revitalization of the capital increases the speed of destruction. Here, as in Kyoto, economic growth causes old buildings to be torn down on major avenues and old facades on the city's smaller byways to be stripped and updated. Already the lack of resources has caused this patrimony to decay severely. One small area has been restored as a conservation district, however, and along this lane a rich heritage of finely carved facades with decorative wood screens constitutes a stunningly evocative historic setting. Otherwise Beijing, like Singapore and Kyoto, seems fated for broad modernization, inevitably reducing the city's historic character to token examples.

While it is impossible to generalize accurately about such diverse cultural phenomena, a pattern tends to emerge. Economic underdevelopment causes decay of historic assets. The single-minded drive for economic recovery causes demolition of badly deteriorated artifacts. But the attainment of a higher standard of living fosters a desire to keep such properties intact, because they stimulate tourism and because as urban societies gain freedom from economic deprivation, they can focus on issues of cultural self-identification. Thus the means and the will to preserve the past often are gained only after the past has already been destroyed.

But can a city reclaim its heritage after such destruction has occurred? With each passing decade, historic conservation laws in Kyoto have increasingly focused on saving whole environments. The preservation districts, the aesthetic areas, and Kyoto's continuing protection of the city's natural landscape not only forestall recent urban development patterns but to some degree attempt to reverse time, to return remnants of the historic city to a condition that has been lost.

Both Western and Japanese observers of Kyoto's cityscape cannot help asking Kevin Lynch's fundamental question:  What time is this place? Or even what place is this place? The combined effect of Kyoto's speculative real estate market and various conservation laws has been to create confusion between the ancient and the modern city around the historic core. Here the modern and historic buildings make distinct aesthetic claims, but neither type dominates. When looking down at the city from the surrounding hillsides, one sees that the preindustrial and postindustrial landscapes are simply commingled in an arbitrary environmental shuffle in which the garden precincts of major monuments stand out as islands of green. The visage of the city is neither contemporary nor old, neither modern nor traditional, neither Western nor Japanese.

In Europe the preservation of old urban centers often results in an extended area of distinct character whose parts combine to make a critical mass and historical visage. When we think of Paris, Prague, Venice, Amsterdam, or Rome, we tend to remember images of historic spaces and buildings knit together in an environmental sculpture of aesthetically related parts. As preservation districts and aesthetic areas in Kyoto are regulated over the decades, two things will inevitably occur:  each district will regain its coherence as a historic ensemble, and out-of-scale unsympathetic modern development will seem more intrusive in contrast. If a greater critical mass of historic ambience is to be achieved at the city's center, Kyoto will have to remove some of the large, intrusive modern structures that fracture its historic areas. This will require creating economic incentives for scaling down such constructions.

While restricting the potential for development is an ordinary feature of historic district designations, removing large structures from low-scale areas is a rare phenomenon. Yet the concept of reversing the mistakes of modernization is gaining acceptance. In London, several large municipal housing projects of unfortunate quality have recently been torn down and replaced by lower-scale buildings. Similarly, in Poland, oversize housing blocks built next to reconstructed historic areas have been replaced by smaller structures. Berlin is contemplating the replacement of out-of-scale municipal buildings from the Communist era and, in some instances, re-creating in these same locations buildings lost in the bombings of World War II. Yet all these examples involve government-owned properties. Reversing private property investments once they have been granted through zoning allowances obviously involves more difficult problems of compensation.

In Toyko, in the midst of Japan's modern urban cacophony, an enormous museum dedicated to preserving the architectural history of the city — a history largely destroyed in the firebombings of World War II — has been created. In giant interior spaces, full-scale replicas of old buildings, fragments of other important traditional structures, and extensive models of historic districts form part of the exhibition. I wandered through this museum, stunned by the beauty of what had once been and, as a citizen of the United States, especially saddened by the passing of a remarkable living culture. Here, buildings are saved as objects, removed from their natural existence as the setting for daily life. In much of Japan, the complex interplay of form and culture captured in living historic cityscapes has been lost forever. That is why Kyoto, as one of the few surviving ancient capitals, is so very important.

With each passing year, more and more of the past is likely to be re-created in Kyoto as part of the living city. This reversal of the development trends of modernization is an idea that could very well influence the future of other places. That such a concept has gestated in Japan may be attributable to the fact that for centuries the Japanese have seen the city as a far more transient and changeable object than has been perceived by builders in the West. In this reversal of time, perhaps the historic visage of Kyoto will once again be legible in the valley within the city's mountains. Perhaps someday we may yet be able to return to the beauty that was Japan. But how much will be done is not clear, nor is the intent of the Japanese. Only time's inexorable passage will bring an answer.

The Widening Ethic of Reservation

"What meaning does your construction have?" he asks. "What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?"

"We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we

cannot interrupt our work now," they answer. Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. "There is the blueprint," they say.

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

When we see the vast illegal settlements that today are home to one-quarter of the earth's population, it is hard not to be appalled. Is this the blueprint which our modern advances were intended to fulfill? In the 14th century, three-fourths of the inhabitants of Europe and Asia (about 225 million people) died of the plague while living in conditions now judged to be primitive — lacking sources of clean water and proper sewage disposal. Today almost ten times that number (about two billion people) live in environments that similarly lack such basic provision.

Yet despite the hardship, inequity, and desperation that spawn such cityscapes, in Mexico City a vestige of hope can be seen in the gradual evolution of illegal settlements. In several communities, after the primary goal of acquiring shelter has been achieved by homeless urban colonizers, a second basic human need is served as individual residents creatively transform their concrete-block dwellings by adding layers of colorful paint to their exteriors, often in the form of exuberant graphic signage.

The proclivity of the wall painters of Mexico City's barrios to invest the built world with visual meaning and color, however meager such surface treatments might be, is of course similar to the motives of traditional handcraft-workers whose labor over centuries is manifested in the beautiful historic cityscapes of the world. Thus it is ironic that in order to create the modern cityscape, which in its most marginal economic forms is frequently an environment of machine-made sterility, so much of the accrued, life-enhancing craftsmanship inherent to historic environments has been reduced. We suffer from the absence of the very quality we have destroyed.

The conservation of historic cities entails two primary acts of social invention:  the initial creation of beautiful old cityscapes and, later, the decision to preserve those environments as part of the expanding contemporary metropolis. The first act of invention marks instances of cultural florescence when urban societies marshal a positive social chemistry in regard to their built surroundings and is sometimes confluent with larger heights of achievement in other spheres. The second act of social creativity, the preservation of cultural patrimony, is in many places simply an act of will — not necessarily reconciling the historic and industrialized cityscape but merely juxtaposing the old and new parts of the metropolis in an unsettled coexistence.

One cannot help wondering if a third act of urban creativity is needed and if this is one of the challenges to be met in the current stage of the construction of cities. Can the modern-historic city, once fractured, be reconceived? Can we envision a different blueprint for the future metropolis? The following chapters focus on several instances when human creativity, born of the widening ethic of conservation, reveals useful possibilities for redefining both the plan and the meaning of the city. Since the disposition of the human-made environment is not inevitable but is subject to our desire, the character of our cities must be viewed as a choice. The question I would raise here — even in the face of complex obstacles and difficult alternatives — is whether other, more positive, options might not be available. In drafting our plans, might we look to the stars, or perhaps more deeply into the human heart?

Excerpted from Preserving the World's Great Cities by Anthony M. Tung. Copyright © 2001 by Anthony M. Tung. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Back to Top

Articles in this Issue

Reversing the Culture of Destruction, by Anthony M. Tung
Family of Man, by Marc Mewshaw
Aural Photographs, by Alissa Tallman
Historic Williamsburg, by T.M. Pugh
Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte
Entomology, by Michelle Wilson
Home Economics, by John Darling
Linguistics, by Richard Lederer, Ph.D.
February 2008


Anthony M. Tung has been a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissioner and an instructor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has written for New York Newsday and lectured on urban preservation throughout the world. He lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.

Where loss is found.

Copyright © 2008 LOST Magazine. All rights reserved.   User Agreement   Privacy Statement   LOST RSS Feed