Two Approaches to Preserving Cultural Monuments

Yesterday I followed along in horror as the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral burned down. The building — one of the great monuments of Western Civilization — was terribly damaged in the conflagration. Fortunately,​ no lives were lost. However, I still felt very sad. Buildings such as Notre Dame are more than mere shelter; they’re also vessels of culture. This fire was a great loss not just for the city of Paris, but for the world.

Seeing the disaster play out on​ Twitter, I couldn’t help but think about the way that we (in the West) go about preserving our cultural heritage. We incur great expenses to maintain structures like Notre Dame “as they were” — kept “authentic,” with as little alteration as possible. Buildings such as Notre Dame are symbols of our past; reminders of where we come from. We strive to keep them the way they were.

In this view, the emphasis is on the artifact itself; what matters is that the structure be preserved unscathed. Occasionally, something terrible may happen, such as yesterday’s fire in Paris. In that case, we put great effort in reconstructing the artifact as accurately as possible. (Architectural historian Andrew Tallon laser-scanned every inch of Notre Dame in 2010.) Fires, wars, and natural disasters have destroyed great monuments in the past. They’re often rebuilt exactly as before. (An example that comes to mind is the campanile in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, which collapsed in 1902.)

This is one way of going about preserving our cultural identity. Another way is best illustrated by another historically important religious structure, the Ise Jingu Shrine in Japan. This building is much older than Notre Dame; it’s been around in its current form since the late 7th Century CE. One of the interesting things about the Ise Shrine is how the people go about preserving it: Instead of waiting for time to take its toll, inhabitants of Mie Prefecture tear it down every twenty years and rebuild it as before.

When you visit the Shrine, you’re experiencing a building that is simultaneously over a thousand years old and also not older than twenty years. What matters isn’t the artifact per se – that exact building — it’s the process that brings it about. The ritual of rebuilding the Shrine preserves not just the structure, but also the methods that brought it about. Its continuous re-creation keeps it more immediately relevant than an artifact that is preserved “as is” for all time. Every generation gets to make it its own. (Literally.)

This is a completely different way of preserving the past. The focus is on systems, processes, and craft over the finished product. It’s a way of bringing cultural identity to life in a way that is more engaging than the more common approach to preservation. It’s also more resilient: a devastating incident like yesterday’s fire wouldn’t be such a major disruption if the structure was meant to be rebuilt anew every generation or so.

I don’t expect we’d actually do this with our great monuments; the expense of re-building an artifact as big and elaborate as Notre Dame ever twenty years would be too great. I want to see the great cathedral reemerge from the ashes, and would love to see it rebuilt as it was. I expect the people of France will bring it back to life. That said, I can’t help but wonder what it would mean for us to adopt a more systems-minded approach — not just to the preservation of our buildings, but to culture more broadly.