'Hozon' is a Japanese term associated with all the activities devoted to the preservation of an object, writes John Fidler. At first sight, the well-produced and lavishly illustrated book of that title* could be taken as a bilateral apologia for the 'golden age' restoration-school of dealing with old buildings. This study, by a German government mission focused on Japanese thought and practice in building conservation, talks of being 'liberated from the restrictive corset of antiquated rules' (western European conservation ethics in which the concept of 'material authenticity' plays a large part), in favour of the Japanese concepts of 'fukugen' (regaining the original) and 'kansei' (bringing to perfection). The position of nineteenth-century English ecclesiologists and of Viollet- le-Duc still pertains in Germany and the Far East!
This is understandable in cultural terms. Some German conservation practice over the last 200 years has leaned heavily towards anastylosis (reassembling fallen fragments from the ground) and the conjectural restoration of missing elements. It has the same end result as when Japanese interests have focused on the concepts of the authenticity of 'design' rather than of material, and on the ritual act of renewal of material and craftsmanship. Hardly one of Japan's 3600 registered monuments, we learn, has not been completely dismantled and reassembled at least once.
After the initial shock, readers brought up on Ruskin's Lamp of Memory, the manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (spab) and the tenets of the Venice Charter (icomos, Paris 1966) might pause for reflection, as the editors and chief contributors, Drs Enders and Gutschow, both appear to have done (both gained their PhDs for studies of Japanese architecture). The fact that extremely old craft traditions and sources of repair materials survive today is a testimony to the Japanese reverence for ancient fabric, craft processes and the secrets that they hold.
Also, continual replacement of historic fabric is understandable in heavily wooded or previously forested countries in wet/temperate climates, where historic buildings are mostly made of materials that rot.
I am more impressed by the enlightenment of the two governments concerned with the cultural and technical exchange which made possible this study, and its publication in English, German and Japanese. The editors (Enders is a state conservation officer in Wiesbaden and Gutschow now works as a conservation consultant in Nepal and India) were funded by the German Ministry of Education, Research, Technology and Science, while one of the contributors, a master carpenter, was supported by a Japan Foundation Fellowship. By such means and overviews we will learn to understand our neighbours in this shrinking world.
John Fidler is head of building conservation and research at English Heritage.
* Hozon: architectural and urban conservation in Japan, edited by Siegfried Enders & Niels Gutschow. Edition Axel Menges, Stuttgart/London. 208pp. £58.