June 02 2011

Twenty-Year Cycle: Rebuilding Urban Designed Shinto Shrines

There is a paradox that exists that poses the question, “If an object has all its component parts replaced, is it still the same object?” This contradiction is played out in a dramatic fashion at the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan. Since 692 C.E. the complex, along with surrounding landscape, is destroyed and rebuilt every twenty years on adjacent sites in exactly the same format as the former complex. Each reformatted shrine is identical in every way to the old and it is considered “re-created” rather than a replica.

The Ise Grand Shrine is held to be the most important Shinto religious site in Japan. Its significance is reflected by its official name “Jingu” which literally means “The Shrine” in Japanese. The site and structures are surrounded by two and a half acres of dense cypress forests that haven’t seen an ax since the construction of the very first shrine incarnation. This religious site is a tourist attraction and the central place of pilgrimage to over seven million worshipers each year. The building structure moves back and forth between adjacent northern and southern lots. Currently it occupies the higher southern site and preparations are already underway for the next rebuilding stage in 2013.

The Shrine itself is built in an ancient and unique architectural style called shimmei-zukuri. This is characterized by extreme simplicity of design. The basic layout is a stylized form of the simple warehouses, granaries, and utility buildings that existed before the introduction of Buddhist architecture in Japan circa 250 C.E.

White cypress is used for every building material present in the structure. The building floor plan is a simple rectangle with verandas surrounding the perimeter. The roof is made of thatched reed with accented woodwork, which projects beyond the roof to form the distinctive forked finials at the front and rear of the structure.

What do you think? “If an object has all its component parts replaced, is it still the same object?”

Jordan Meerdink

Jordan Meerdink, a former GSP blogger, is a graduate of the The Ohio State University. He holds a B.S. in Architecture with a minor in studio art. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Jordan inherited an early interest in mechanics and construction from his grandfather, a developer who was one of the early practitioners of prefabricated housing, and his father who is a retired store owner and highly capable D.I.Yer. Currently living in New York City, he continues to produce art and furniture with a focus on smart, ecologically responsible design. Jordan has a special concern for design that serves people outside the traditional clientele of architects, with an interest in architecture that deviates from the beaten path, ranging from Baroque churches to dismantled bomb shelters.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 2nd, 2011 at 10:45 am and is filed under Architecture, Landscape Architecture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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3 Responses to “Twenty-Year Cycle: Rebuilding Urban Designed Shinto Shrines”

  1. Chrysl Says:

    Hi Jordan
    I am doing my masters in restoration of buildings.In connection with this, I am currently working on an essay on Japanese architecture – a comparison on the different building materials and practices used in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan, to be precise. I came across your article and it has been of great help. I would like to know if you have more information or if you recommend some source materials that would help me out with my essay.
    Thanks !

  2. Jordan Meerdink Says:

    Hi Chrysl,
    I would be happy to help feel free to email me and I can try to direct you towards the sources you need.

  3. Charuko Nakamachi Says:

    Mr. Meerdink,

    I believe I have an answer for you from a Shinto perspective, and since we are speaking in environmental design terms which is focused on the relationship between the user of the space and the space itself it may be of some small but useful consideration.

    In terms of the Shinto system of belief, it’s very tradition oriented, and echos back to prehistory. The user of the space in this Shinto concept is the kami enshrined in the space.

    I’ve noticed that Western religions tend to shift and sway in their architectural considerations, often at the behest of the financial backer of the structure being built. There is nothing wrong with this, even if seem a self aggrandizement. In Shinto terms while an individual may be associated with the founding of a shrine, it’s a rare event and the focus of the shrine and it’s structure is more related to the kami being enshrined. Shrines tend to evolve with the kami more than with the congregants.

    In the sense of the kami, that is, in it’s spiritual sense, even if the physical components of the structure are only days old, the structure itself is as old as the first shrine to built at the shrine’s location. It’s this kami quality that Shinto people consider. In this sense it remains the same object.

    There is an advantage to the practice of rebuilding every twenty years, in exactly the same fashion each time, in that the techniques are preserved and remain in living memory. This is important in a geologically volatile nation like Japan where the structures can be damaged in an earthquake. So, there is a historic practicality.

    I hope this serves to offer a perspective.

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