Mind & Matter


Japan Notebook: Preserving a Solitary Moment

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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.


Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Robert Tromp | Time: 8:02 PM Saturday, January 28, 2012

    First of all, it's remarkable that the Parthenon is named an example of non-intervention as this is in fact a prime example of hyper-preservation: the ruins are being 'restored' to a state that is more suitable for long-time preservation, i.e. a more stable and durable structure, however that state never existed before. Secondly, seen from a western point of view it's not strange at all to actively preserve ruins like Gunbaku Domu. Indeed this has been done for centuries. Rome, for example, is filled with ruins that are maintained in a certain 'frozen' state. Maybe the best western example of all is the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, a building gutted by the same war as Gunbaku Domu and also maintained in 'suspended animation'. Then maybe the preservation of ruinous A-bomb Dome is unique from a Japanese perspective? It might very well be the case. Apart from castle building, extensive use of stone is next to non-existent in historic Japanese building tradition. Very little, if any, stone ruins remain to be preserved. On the other hand, wasn't it an extraordinary and not to forget inhumanely gruesome event that created this modern ruin? Doesn't that merit the measures taken in order to preserve this ruin? In either case, it's difficult to understand why someone finds it strange to see a structure that will never again be inhabited undergoing such a careful examination.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:27 PM Friday, January 27, 2012

    Arrogant twit. Preservation of a moment is the goal. You think a sushi bar would be more appropriate. Stick to materials.

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.