Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity: Part 1

Erfurt from the tower of St Aegidius

One of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan is the Ise Grand Shrine, in the Mie prefecture, near Kyoto. It was built in 2013.

This apparent paradox is due to the tradition that the shrine is completely rebuilt every 20 years, using exactly the same techniques and materials with which it was first constructed. The current manifestation is the 62ndsuch building on the site. Equally paradoxically, this practice both symbolises Shinto belief in the impermanence of all things, and yet also seeks to ensure the continuation of age-old crafts and construction techniques.

I had been reading about this, and many other similar examples in South East Asia, just before we started on an ambitious 17 day tour across eight cities and towns in Austria and Germany, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the idea of ‘authenticity’ was very much on my mind as we plunged into the heady worlds of the Hapsburgs, of Luther, of Goethe and Schiller, and of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and the GDR.

I’ve always liked the paradox known as my grandfather’s axe: my father replaced the handle, and I replaced the head, but this is still my grandfather’s axe. Looking it up, I was surprised to find that the concept has a history that goes all the way back to Plutarch, who told it of Theseus’s ship, preserved by the Athenians, yet with every element gradually replaced over time: was it, or was it not, still the ship in which Theseus had sailed from Crete?

After the Second World War, the shattered cities of Europe and Asia faced a crucial set of decisions: rebuild, reconstruct, or build anew?  In Britain, almost overwhelmingly, the decision was to build anew—to replace bombed out city centres with modernist developments; Exeter is one of the most extreme examples. In many towns and cities, indeed, the planners went far beyond the Luftwaffe in removing old buildings and replacing them with a new architectural language.  Ironically, this approach was almost certainly hugely influenced by the pre-war influx to the UK of a host of European modernist architects, fleeing Fascism. It’s not the purpose of this blog to explore how far such decisions have contributed, two generations on, to the pervasive decline of the British town centre.

In much of the rest of Europe, however, and especially in those countries which formed the Soviet bloc, the decision was to rebuild. From Warsaw to Nuremberg, from Dresden to Munich, immense effort went into recreating the pre-war cityscape, using photographs, drawings, paintings, plans and, where at all possible, actual fragments of the destroyed originals.

In different contexts, approaches also differed.  In Munich, patterns of brickwork in the exterior walls of the Alte Pinakothek Gallery show what survived and what had to be rebuilt. In Erfurt’s Predigerkirche thousands of tiny fragments of medieval stained glass were brought together from bombed churches across the city and refashioned into a set of dazzlingly beautiful abstract choir windows. In Warsaw, as Dan Cruikshank fascinatingly revealed in a documentary a couple of years back, the post-war reconstruction work is now itself sufficiently old as to demonstrate a passage of time that could as well be two hundred and fifty years, as fifty.

But what of those towns which had largely escaped the ravages of Allied bombers, or the steam-roller of the Red Army? When I visited Cracow in 1994, just five years after the fall of Communism, it was like stepping back in time to what much of Europe must have looked like before the Second War. But these surviving old buildings are like Theseus’s ship: they cannot survive without ongoing repair and replacement. And so, in cities like Bamberg and Regensburg, which we visited a few years ago, and Erfurt and Naumburg which we saw on this trip, there have been huge programmes of renovation and restoration, often funded by the EU.  The result is disconcerting.  These historical survivals, gleaming with paint and gilding, now look as good as new. In fact, they look newer than those wholly reconstructed buildings which were erected 50 or 60 years ago. If, In Cracow, I felt I was going back to the 1930s, the aim in these restorations is to go back to the 1630s, or even earlier.

To a Brit, this approach is troubling.  We like our old buildings to look old.  The more worn the timbers, the more lopsided the structure, the more faded the plasterwork, the better. Faithful restorations, such as of the Great Hall at Stirling Castle, may strike us as garish, perhaps even a bit kitsch.  And yet, over time, we have whole-heartedly adopted the approach of our European neighbours.  Now, if a Hampton Court or an Uppark is damaged or destroyed by fire, the original will be meticulously recreated.

It can seem, therefore, as if this is now a universal norm.  If we can ‘preserve’ Theseus’s ship by gradually replacing all its elements, we’ll do so.  But if, through some terrible accident, the ship is destroyed, we will faithfully recreate it.  But this approach is in fact far from universal. China, for example, has a completely different philosophy.  For a culture that celebrates 3500 years of continuous history, China has remarkably few historic buildings, apart, of course, from the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace. This is because, for many centuries, ‘heritage’, in China has been represented through texts, through continuity of practices (the infamous Civil Service exam system), and through personal expressions such as calligraphy, painting and ceramics. As one historian put it, ‘the Chinese civilisation did not lodge its history in buildings…the only truly enduring embodiments of the eternal human moments are the literary ones’.

Ideas of architectural ‘authenticity’, therefore, unavoidably shaped our reactions to the different cities and towns, familiar and unfamiliar, which we visited on our tour. But much wider and more diverse themes of myth and authenticity also seemed to present themselves wherever we looked, right from our very first day in Vienna, and that’s what I’ll turn to in the next part of this blog.

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2 responses to “Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity: Part 1”

  1. Donald Fraser says :

    I’d always avoided Warsaw because I’d heard about such extensive rebuilds, and as a (late)colonial I retained a sense of the power of ‘aura’. Intrigued then to find recently that the rebuilds had already weathered rather well. But the real treat on this score was Gdansk …

  2. Karen Ray says :

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