On permanence

The oak tree is large and solid. It has a deep tap root, a massive trunk and heavy branches. It lives for many years and spreads its branches across a far-reaching crown. It entrenches itself so firmly into the soil that over time its water-seeking roots can crack concrete slabs and rip up paving stones. It grows slowly and densely.

Bamboo is fine and slender. It is in constant motion, its leaves and stems swaying and whispering in the slightest breeze. It grows quickly, as much as 1m a day, and to its full height in its first growing season. It is light, its nodes hollow, and it lives for only a short while before decomposing and returning to the land.

The oak and bamboo strike me as particularly suited to describing the contrast in European and Japanese attitudes towards permanence.

Europe is the oak. It builds heavily and in materials that withstand the ravages of time. It employs stone so that its buildings may endure for centuries, even millennia, unchanged. It builds tall and wide – cathedrals and castles that dominate the body and overwhelm the spirit. The European mind seeks to leave an immortal imprint on the land that will far outlast its own short lifespan.

Japan is bamboo. It builds lightly and in materials that fade and weather. It employs timber so that its buildings last mere decades, with sliding screens that permit the entry of rain, wind and snow. It builds long and low – pavilions and temples that wrap around both landscape and body. The Japanese mind does not seek a permanent mark on the land, but a process to stand the test of time. The building itself may not endure, but the process of decay and renewal gives new life with each turn of the cycle.

The Parthenon, St. Peter’s Basilica, La Sagrada Familia and Warwick Castle. Ise Shrine, Katsura Imperial Villa and Ryoanji Temple. Stone and timber. Permanent building and permanent tradition.

Author: Warwick Mihaly

I am an architect, writer, teacher and father.

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