Voice 23 - Mark Johnston - Memory

/ Mark Johnston / Creative Workspace

Plutarch’s thought experiment asks whether the essence of the ship of Theseus lies in the memory of it or its physicality. If every part of the vessel is replaced in the course of its journey, so that nothing original remains, can it still be considered the same upon its return?

In a more literal sense, the Ise Grand Shrine is re-built every 20 years to the same inherited design and specification and has been so for over 1000 years, retaining centuries old craftsmanship and techniques, bridging the gap between generations. The form of the shrine and the experience of its architecture – of creating it – are what connects the shrine’s community to their ancestors. The Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature lies at the heart of this ceremonial process; that the physical shrine is less than 20 years old is irrelevant.

It is reasonable, then, to say that what the object represents is more important than the object itself. Theseus’ ship is defined by its form, purpose and spirit, rather than the materials from which it is crafted. Of course, this is no simple matter in practice, as the representation is subject to strict rules that maintain its spiritual connection to history.

“Though physical things decay, their object or idea endures.” – Richard Sennet

The notion of decay, too, is valuable. In the Japanese art of Kintsugi – the ‘golden repair’ – the spirit of ancient pottery is preserved from the traumas of its past. The damaged object becomes something special; of greater worth, not less. These ‘defects’ become a part of the object’s history, its memory. It is distinct from the manufacturing processes that brought it into being, with an individual character and identity. Here the physical age of the cup or bowl is important and the visible repair a celebration of that.

“Things we inherit from the past remind us that the men who made and used them were like us, and give us a tangible link with them.” – David Pye

Ownership is replaced by stewardship as fingerprints accumulate, paint is chipped, leather becomes polished and cracked. The mark of an unknown person in permanent blue ink or crudely engraved into wood. Not the maker’s mark, but that of somebody who loved and used these objects: a camera, a chest, a sewing machine. We don’t know these people, but we find a connection with them through the objects they leave behind. A palimpsest of lives long gone.

This notion of embedded memory exists independently of ownership too. A redundant doorway that hangs on the shorn gable of a partly demolished terrace, or a superfluous service hatch in a refurbished building. These ‘thomassons’, often more trouble to remove than simply ignore, in time take on their own peculiar beauty. Of no practical worth, the embedded memory becomes their purpose and they become the curios of a forgotten time.

There is beauty in imperfection. Like a person proudly carrying the scars of a life well lived, our role as architects is not to erase the past but to build on it, adding our own unique layer as part of the life of our cities. It is a reflection of our way of looking at the world; a conversation between the past, present and future.

Kintsugi Repair