Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

The love of old buildings
Ushio - August 2007

There are many things that Britain and Japan have in common, including our island status, our long histories as independent countries and our somewhat sceptical attitude towards our neighbours on the mainland. One thing that makes us very different, however, is our attitude to the history that stands all around us: in other words, to old buildings. In Japan, you are always knocking them down and building new ones. In Britain, we are desperate to preserve them.

            That difference came to my mind when I was reading an article in the Financial Times, which is Britain’s equivalent to the Nikkei Shimbun except that it has a more international approach. The article was written by one of its correspondents in Tokyo, called Mure Dickie, and it concerned a beautiful old hall that was built in 1925 using some parts and materials that dated back to earlier buildings there in the Edo era, and it is used for kendo martial arts. It is called Noma Dojo, and it is apparently soon going to be destroyed.

            The hall is owned by the publishing company, Kodansha, and is located on Kodansha’s corporate campus in Tokyo. The article said that Kodansha plans to construct a big new office building on the site. It has already rebuilt part of the site, and has put a modern kendo fencing hall in that new building. So the firm says that it will be continuing its traditional support for Japanese martial arts in that way.

            I have not seen the Noma Dojo personally, but I have seen the photographs on the Financial Times’s website. It looks like a lovely old wooden building, which is in good condition, and it has screen doors that open on to a beautiful garden lined with cherry trees. The kendo fencers remain in harmony with nature.

 In Britain, even if the owner wanted to destroy such a building it would not be allowed to. Historic buildings are protected by law: the government assigns grades to those buildings that are put on the protected list, and the grades determine what the owner is allowed to do to them. This does help encourage tourism, but that is not the only reason to do it: we also want to preserve our history in order to educate ourselves about what it means to be British.

            Some people think Britain goes too far in its protection of old buildings. There are more than 350,000 on the protected list, and of those about 30,000 have the strongest levels of protection. Occasionally, the government places quite modern buildings on the list, thus preserving structures that it thinks are of architectural significance but that local residents think are just ugly, concrete blocks from the 1960s. A town hall in the coastal city of Plymouth has recently been listed for protection, for instance, causing a noisy row in the local press as most citizens of Plymouth would like to see it demolished.

            Progress and modernisation are essential to the vitality of any nation. But what is the right approach if that need for progress is also to be balanced against the need to preserve history and cultural identity? Shinzo Abe has said he wants Japan to be a “beautiful country”. Is that well served by demolishing buildings like the Noma Dojo?

            My feeling is that Britain probably does preserve too many of its old buildings. Our towns and cities need to be able to keep on changing, in order to keep up with modern requirements. But I am glad that we do preserve quite a lot of our genuinely historic buildings, and not just palaces, castles and churches.

Kings, warriors and priests are an important part of our history and our national identity, but they are not all of it; merchants, politicians, craftsmen, writers, musicians and even sometimes ordinary people have also contributed to our culture and our history. The homes they built and lived in provide constant lessons about that culture and about British national identity.

            Traditionally, it is true, the British approach to old buildings has differed from the Japanese approach for simple reasons: because we tended to build using stone rather than wood, and because Britain does not suffer from earthquakes. Our old buildings have been able to survive for centuries even without legal protection by the government.

            As someone who loves Japan and Japanese culture, I wish that more old buildings in Japan could be preserved. It would not be necessary for Japan to be as protective as Britain is, but it could usefully protect beautiful old halls like Kodansha’s kendo centre. With modern technology, such buildings can now be protected against fire and earthquakes, and be made to last a lot longer than before.

            I know that many old buildings are preserved in special locations. I have visited the Meiji Miura, near Nagoya, for example, where there are many buildings preserved from the Meiji era, including part of the old Imperial Hotel. I have also visited towns like Takayama, where the old town has been preserved for visitors to enjoy, and where there is the Hida folk village containing many old farmhouses. These are lovely places, and I am delighted that they exist.

            But I also feel that old buildings really belong in the places where they were originally constructed. Their history and cultural identity is not just a matter of the materials used and the design, but also of how they were made to fit in their original location, and what role they played there.

            So I hope that the campaign to persuade Kodansha to preserve the Noma Dojo is successful. And I would like to think that Mr Abe’s “beautiful country” could also turn its attention to preserving the other old buildings that remain in its big modern cities. There are not many of them left, unfortunately. But that also means that it should not be too difficult to find a way to protect them.

            Tokyo is a wonderful modern city. But it also needs its remaining old buildings in order to help maintain its sense of history and of identity.


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