Japan Notebook: Preserving a Solitary Moment
The Atomic Bomb Dome undergoing structural analysis, Hiroshima, Japan. Photo by the author.
While researching philosophies and methods of historic preservation conducted in Japan, one of my students came across an article entitled "Time Perception, or the Ineluctable Aging of Material in Architecture" by Murielle Hladik. The article describes three fundamental approaches to historic structures, which I simplify here as the following: 1) reconstruction (as in the treatment of Ise Shrine, which is rebuilt anew every 20 years), 2) repair (in which old materials are incrementally replaced with new ones as they decay), and 3) non-intervention (as seen in the Western handling of historic structures like the Parthenon).
During a recent visit to Hiroshima, my students and I discovered yet another approach. The Gemba Domu, or the "A-Bomb Dome," is one of the only remaining structures left standing after the world's first atomic bombing on August 6, 1945. Originally a prefectural hall for exhibitions and cultural events, the structure has been left as an unoccupiable ruin since the bombing, serving as a reminder of the terrible effects of nuclear war. During our visit, my students and I were surprised to find the dome covered in scaffolding, while tests are conducted to ensure the structural health of the building.
It is strange indeed to see a structure that will never again be inhabited undergoing such a careful examination. In this rare case, the preservation objective is not reconstruction, repair to an original state, or non-intervention. Rather, it is the use of any means necessary to ensure that the building remains exactly as it was found after 8:15 am on August 6, 1945—its inhabitants all killed by the massive heat wave that descended from the hypocenter of the bomb.
On one hand, it is easy to appreciate the need to preserve the A-Bomb Dome in this particular condition as a caution to future generations. On the other hand, it is the narrowest and most artificial of treatments. As life in the now bustling contemporary city of Hiroshima carries on around it, the A-Bomb Dome stands as an architectural island frozen in a particular moment—neither serving its original function nor acquiescing to the vagaries of time.