Digital Decay

It reminded me of buildings in Japan. Houses and apartment buildings there are routinely bulldozed and rebuilt every 30 years or so. It makes sense. The country is insanely earthquake-prone, so buildings never stay free of cracks and defects for very long. The Japanese have long figured out that impermanence is not something to be fought against, but embraced. If you want to create something that will last forever, you need to cater for the fact that it will change. It will age. Everything does. Even plastic returns to dust, eventually.

To the befuddled gaijin wondering why they would borrow their life away to buy a house that would have to be bulldozed in 30 years, their Japanese friends would say it has been done like that forever. Some will surely make a point to mention how shinto shrines such as the great complex in Ise have been identically re-built every 20 years for times immemorial:


And yet, and yet… The main difference is in the material. The apartment building made of painted concrete, and the shrines mainly made of wood. Wood will only respond to the battering of the elements with a beautiful patina, and when is time to let go of it, more trees will have grown to replace and rebuild.

Concrete, on the other hand, holds the hope of building once and forever. No wonder the roman empire perfected it, no wonder our industrial world, tired of hauling stone around, is scrambling to re-discover it.

But concrete ages. Badly. Ugly in a handful of years (if not from day one, but that is a matter of taste), cracked in 10, crumbling eventually. And we hide it and paint it and plaster it, but sooner or later pyrotechnics take over. Start again, from scratch.

Maybe some day we will find the ageing of concrete beautiful, talk of its patina, as we do for wood. Will we build differently then?

Olivier Thereaux: Digital Decay, via le tiers livre.

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