Question2: Perhaps Only the Future Will Know What It Is to ‘Make an Epoch’?
Kenchiku Toron web, feature: “5 selected simple questions and their straightforward extremist answers,” 10 December 2020; original article (Japanese; external site)
ONE DOUBT, TWO WORLDS, AND THREE HISTORIANS
The eternal future, where everything is past, and the eternal past, where everything is future…
It was 16:16 on October 17, 2020. On contact with one of the “simple questions” posed by the editorial staff, I dreamt of it as a question from my selves living in two parallel universes. In this romance, it is a single question that is not univocal: it is two riddles in one, posed from those two extremist worlds. To that very simple question, therefore, I am sure I have to prepare at least two answers.
“In this future we ever live in, all the right materials for the right judgments and all the access to them are prepared to command the past objectively. So, it is but we that have the due authority of historical assessment.”
If the question was asked by a person who belongs to the eternal future, we can see this kind of pride in it. To ask such a question surely means that in that world, historiography is strictly as objective as science. If a building can be said to have “made an epoch,” there is no longer any empirical doubt about that judgment. And I am sure that my fellows in that world, who entrust me with such historical interpretations, will be as confident and sure as I am, and will applaud me for illuminating the past with the brightest of eyes. Their chats in that world shall be like this: “We the future man know that the Crystal Palace at the 1851 London World’s Fair was a milestone in the history of modern architecture — thus we know that John Ruskin’s eyes, who saw the Palace as a cucumber frame were just blind or something!”
Though I, a historian living in this world, will not believe in the history that is told in that world and trusted by my fellows there. I do not live in the world of such futurists, and I cannot clear up doubts even in their perfect ex post facto assessments.
In this world in which I live, the notion that one can judge the past from the highest perspective without selfishness because he/she is a future person is downright presumptuous- firstly from a technical standpoint. Now that the IT revolution began a quarter of a century ago, we are at the dawn of digital history. We are beginning to realize the vastness of the information universe, even more so because the benefits of it has finally started to be enjoyed by lay historians.
From a political standpoint, on the other hand, the past is easily summoned for contemporary utility, and the degree of its misuse, which could be called abuse, only increases day by day. We now call it as post-truth, a window-dressing name that merely sounds nice. It is complicated and unclear whether this is due to an inherent lack of technology, unevenness and inequality in its distribution, or a lack of ethics or education. It is also unclear whether or not historical science functions a reviewing body for such injustices.
Our eyes are too impaired, and our hands too filthy. My skepticism constitutes an ingrained habit of someone living in such a world as ours.
In this world, history, the past as told, is the object of suspicion, lest it be used to justify someone’s egotism. The past is subjected to reinterpretation for the sake of it, and even the facts can be easily distorted sometimes. We see people who readily believe these distorted stories as they please. It is precisely because I am aware that I may be one of them that my sense of danger becomes even more acute. The question was posed to me at this very moment in this very world, at the very extreme point of such a situation. That is why the first question sounded like extreme arrogance to me.
“Perhaps Only the Future Will Know What It Is to ‘Make an Epoch’?,”— here I heard a glimpse of the insanity of “not accepting as history any history other than the one we accept.”
To be honest, I envy myself living in that universe of eternal future. His arrogance which is acceptable in that perfect world, is, in this imperfect world, leading to the mass-production of people who feel no shame about selfishly historicizing and reinterpreting what happened just the year before, the month before, yesterday, or even an hour, a second, or right before their eyes. Access to primary information for objective judgments may be closed at any time. The materials for historical evaluation should not be shared by everyone. It is inconvenient if they are not concealed within the people who create history.
This must be when architecture becomes a target as a monument. There can be times when the glorious architecture of the glorious past becomes an eyesore because people want to consider a national event of hard present as a glorious legacy. It may be in times like this that even the future of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (Kenzo Tange, 1964), that “epoch-making” architecture, is seriously considered.
Figure: J. M. Fitch, American Building: The Forces That Shape It (1948)
“We do not have the authority to make our own historical assessments of the past in which we ever live, because the materials and access to correct value judgments will be available only in the future.”
If the question was asked by a person who belongs to the eternal past, we can see in it a reverence that leaves all historical evaluation to the future. The fact that one asked such a question means that in that world, the technology for creating a database has made great progress in accordance with the fixed proposition of “leaving materials for judgment in the future.” In that parallel universe, I shall be working hard to collect, store, and share all kinds of data on all buildings, not choosing anything, firmly believing in the fair judgment of the future.
If you look up “Crystal Palace” in the Wikipedia of our world, you will find that “It was three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral.” I am sure that such a statement is not written in the Wikipedia of that world either, for it hints at an appeal to contemporaries and future generations alike, a subconscious message that tells that “the Crystal Palace is an engineered building that heralded the arrival of the industrial age as a monument that surpasses the greatness of the national religious building designed by the greatest British architect Christopher Wren.” The people of that world, who believe in the fairness of the future, would not condone such a petty, subjective, stealth-marketing kind of thing.
However, to me in this world, the people who continue to live in such a world seem to be too timid and despicable. In a world where such an attitude is correct for everyone, there will never be a judgment as to whether or not an architectural work has marked the times. This seems immediately apparent from simple induction, and they prove buzzkills if they are not able to forecast this simple consequence. The people of that world may even be said to be a bunch of cowards who keep running away from making judgments on their own, exploiting absolute reservations.
I imagine that in such a world that avoids making value judgments about facts, neither historical narratives nor historiography would have occurred in the first place. Assessment about historical significance existed only as a mere skeleton, as a question that would never be answered, and surely there was no one who even grasped the meaning of the word, even back to its inception. In fact, the first question may have been an innocent question to our world, where historical narratives do exist.
I also imagine that, in that world, where comparisons cannot be made, the difference between “building” and “architecture” has never been an issue. Ruskin’s Polemic, which branded the Crystal Palace as ‘unarchitectural’, was surely not born there. Put aside the definition for now, in such a world, the will and act of aiming for a nobler architecture seems to be impossible. My ego, which is possessed of a sense of right and wrong, of good and bad, finds supreme pleasure in engaging in the appreciation and creation of superior things by means of living judgment, and I also feed myself with aversion to inferior things. So I do not want to live in a world of the eternal past, where the value of all architecture would have to be equal, and practically zero.
“Perhaps only the present can truly feel what it is to ‘make an epoch’?” ── It would be nice to have the guts to reverse the first question this much. It is true that the words that people of each era utter in a contemporary context do not necessarily prove that a certain architecture is objectively “making an epoch.” Moreover, the words so uttered may not fully or even accurately express the reason why the work caused the utterance. Nevertheless, one must make full use of these poor and inaccurate words to convey one’s own sensibilities and thoughts to future generations. In fact, it seems to be a definite proposition even by the standards of the world of the eternal past. It is also a precious document that records one’s own emotions and despairs through eloquence and ramblings. If one truly believes in the knowledge of the future, one should be able to leave even the task of interpreting them to the future.
Figure: Sigfried Giedion’s letter to Kenzo Tange, April 6, 1965.
On receiving the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Gold Medal.
gta Archives / ETH Zurich, Sigfried Giedion
However, the same opportunism found in the world of the eternal past is also encroaching on our own world.
The stadium in question was awarded the Special Prize of the Architectural Institute of Japan in 1965 as part of the “Planning, Design, and Management of the Yoyogi Olympic Stadium and Komazawa Park,” and was also honored for its achievements as an individual construction project. But at that time, the jury citation did not say much more than that they had completed a new technology architecture in a short period of time. It was only in the “history of construction” that the enterprise was mentioned as being “epoch-making.” As for the aesthetic evaluation, we can only rely on the phrase “it has already established a reputation both at home and abroad” as a paltry hint, but it could be read as if the jury is throwing the task of reexamining the written documents to future historians. This is all well and good, but shouldn’t the official view of the AIJ have been expressed at least once in that monumental occasion, so that it could be used as a historical document for the future, conveying a part of the aesthetic view of the time? The bill for this critical laziness may come due at any time.
Since then, documentation of this masterpiece has continued, and recently it seems to be gaining momentum. However, I am not sure if any words to describe its definitive majesty have ever come out of it. Even now, more than half a century after its birth, it seems that we are still searching for due words that can express the true value of its architecture.
As a historian living in this world, I can only write the most reliable history of the time, using the best research available at the time, with the best technology available at the time. However, the authenticity of their historical narratives, and even their intentions, are immediately called into question. This is understandable. I am convinced of this. My sensibilities and ideas, as a self-proclaimed historian, are also conditioned by something unique to our time, somewhere, unconsciously, I am sure, as a person living in this present age. The past, which should have been relativized, and the future, which should have relativized the past, are destined to be further relativized in the future to come after. We are living in such an interminable hell, where knowledge never achieves completeness and the correctness of judgment is never proven.
I like this extremely half-baked universe. The idea that cannot be held in the two extremist universes of the eternal future and the eternal past, is what forms the “humanity” in our own. It is the greed that wants to reach out to those two extremes that keeps my heart connected to this world. This greed leads me to raise an inaccurate cry with my meager vocabulary, and to dive into the pool of historical materials, hoping to overcome my own historical perspective unto enlightenment. I want to swim in the pool with all my might, feeling the pressure of the past and the future firmly in my body. I want to write the history that waits to be written at this time, through a synthesis of arrogance and humility, of constant skepticism and credit. There is room in this imperfect world for this kind of game as a sport of knowledge and intellect, as an unsurpassed pleasure.
“Perhaps only the future will know what it is to ‘make an epoch’?”── If such a question is asked only in one direction, the direction that presupposes the superiority of the future, and if the inverse question is implicitly taboo, it may constitute the pathology of an age that is scared of the responsibility of value judgment. We must break the co-dependency between the past and the future, and live in the present in a way that is fair to the past, to the future, and to our neighbors. I believe that the best time to make this determination is at this moment, when humanity is at its most half-developed and underdeveloped in terms of information technology and historical awareness, and therefore at its most delirious and conceited.
Perhaps this is also the time to reexamine the way we formulate questions. If we do not revise and reframe the way our bodies interact with information, we will drown.
It was 1854 when Ruskin published The Opening of the Crystal Palace and 1948 when James Marston Fitch published American Building: The Forces That Shape It. As I live in the year 2020, I look back on these two phenomena, which are different in time, region, and therefore context, from different standpoints, and sense the historical significance of the Crystal Palace quite differently from both Ruskin and Fitch. With the help of the documentation of the sensibility over the past 170 years, we can see the spiritual history of architecture that can only be depicted if we open our eyelids. The pool of history, filled with all kinds of prejudices, fallacies, lies, and contradictions, is, indeed, clear because it is true. The only reason it feels like a dark cloud of disorder is because there was no light shining on it before.
And I want to know what “Japan” is and was in the history of modern architecture with my open eyes. Did it really exist as a single entity? It may not be a physical “Japan” in the form of that archipelago, and moreover, it may not even be entangled in the net of the category of “We Japanese.” It may be but a number of sea snakes swimming in the space of human imaginations and associations. Those various intangible “Japans” may have lived on this planet beyond any national borders, and still continue to live, shedding their skin and laying eggs repeatedly. And through the testimonies of those multiple “Japans” the true nature of the “world” that modern architectural historiographies have invented shall eventually be revealed. I believe that Yoyogi National Gymnasium also “made an epoch” as a witness to this narrow “world.”
It is the ambition of a modern historian to correctly grasp the flow of information that is full of praise and criticism, falsehood and truth, and to uncover the secrets of its fluid dynamics. He dares to express his knowledge and sensibility in the midst of the vortex, knowing that his words and deeds will also form a tiniest part of the historical materials for the future, and makes it a physical sacrifice to the Olympia of the human spirit.
His ashes want to be buried under that diving board.
Figure: Darren Bradley, Brutalism: Through the Eyes of an Architectural Photographer (2014)
 “The Crystal Palace,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crystal_Palace, accessed 2020.11.15.
 “3. On Other Achievements: Construction Techniques in the Building Work of the First and Second Gymnasiums of the Yoyogi National Stadium,” Journal of AIJ, No. 957, https://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110003790517, pp. 556-557, August 1965; “4. Special Award: Planning, Design and Supervision of the Olympic Yoyogi Stadium and Komazawa Park,” ibid., https://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110003790518, p. 557. The following quotes are from these articles.
 John Ruskin, The Opening of the Crystal Palace: Considered in Some of Its Relations to the Prospects of Art, London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1854; James Merston Fitch, American Building: The Forces That Shape It, Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948.
 “The head of the U.S. team is said to have praised the architecture of Yoyogi National Stadium and said, ‘When I die, bury my ashes under this diving board’” (https://news.yahoo.co.jp/articles/3640a7cf34996efd3a1316e56a0e65 b6483e533e?page=4: accessed 2020.11.15). If you know the primary source of this anecdote, please let me know.