The wooden shrine at Ise, in Mie prefecture, Japan, the central site of the Shinto religion and an important focus for Japanese nationalism and dynastic authority, has been constantly rebuilt since the seventh century. Although there have been lapses in its long history, the preferred practice is for a ritual rebuilding every twenty years.
Beside the existing shrine, a space is left empty to provide a site for the new building. The old building is then taken down to leave an empty space in turn. Ise shrine thus continually alternates between these two spaces in an existential flicker-effect or instability of identity.
Unlike iconic Western buildings such as the pyramids or the Parthenon, which are massively material and enduring, Ise’s lighter structure summons an energy that must be constantly renewed in ritual practice. The gods are invited to take up a residence which is understood to be temporary, a flow of energy or power. While Western edifices are patched up or stand until they crumble, Ise’s ancient architecture is forever new, immediate and functional.
It is essential to the rebuilding process that no change, development or innovation is introduced into the fabric of the building. Each rebuilding imagines an origin to which it returns in the timeless acts of the ritual. Although small differences must occur over the centuries, the intention is always to return to the same.
You are neither there nor here. Like the vacant space beside the shrine which, far from being a pure negation, offers the possibility of the building’s renewal, a sense of identity must be constantly recovered from emptiness and repositioned in a vision of the same. Practice is not towards some final performance but a life long checking and affirming.
see “Japan-ness in Architecture”, Arata Isozaki, MIT Press 2011
photographs Eiji Watanabe