Wabi sabi and the (self-imposed?) limits of heritage science
by Scott Allan Orr
Wabi sabi embodies the Zen nihilist cosmic view and seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux, evolve from nothing and devolve back to nothing. Within this perpetual movement nature leaves arbitrary tracks for us to contemplate, and it is these random flaws and irregularities that offer a model for the modest and humble wabi sabi expression of beauty. Rooted firmly in Zen thought, wabi sabi art uses the evanescence of life to convey the sense of melancholic beauty that such an understanding brings. The term wabi sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.
Juniper (2003, pp. 1–2)
There’s a lot to be said for appreciating the unique qualities that time has brought to a heritage artefact. It embodies the idea of embracing the imperfect and relishing the cracks and flaws—transcending above a mere decorative idea to a wholly spiritual concept.
More directly, it raises questions of the role and responsibilities of the heritage science sector. How far does conservation and preservation extend before verging on forgery? It’s very difficult to quantify the distinction between weathering and decay—or similarly, ageing and damage. Part of the implicit value of heritage is to stand as evidence of the impermanence of everything in time, as exemplified by ‘acceptable’ material change.
Determining acceptable change isn’t just based on ‘access to collections’ or ‘structural integrity’, it must embody the intrinsic value of human perception of collection or structure. Herein lies the distinction between of a dose-response function, ie. Physical change = f(conditions and properties), and a damage function, where damage = f(interpretation(physical change)).
One of the most interesting studies analysing this effect recorded perceptions of pedestrian’s opinions on various soiling patterns around historic windows (Brimblecombe & Grossi, 2004; 2005).
Two fundamental ideas emerged from their work:
- Interpretation of soiling is based on not only the level or colour, but relies heavily on the distribution. For instance, the strongest negative reaction was to vertical rain-washed streaks, in addition to staining that obscured architectural features.
- It is likely possible to define thresholds for ‘acceptable’ levels of soiling based on public perception.
Herein lies the problem that faces heritage scientists: although a particular integrity of work may be possible, we must consider what is necessary, and in some cases—most favourable from the public’s perception.
Additionally, heritage science must try to balance the practical requirements of its end users, it also incorporates components of science for knowledge development and fundamental inquiry. I’ll use an example of this from my own work.
In trying to visualise the movement of moisture in historical masonry, there is a balance to be struck between working on such a small scale of analysing fluid transport in porous media and what is most cost- and time-effective do surveying moisture in structures. Both are pursuits worthy of significant inquiry, but in a project designed to bring scientists and practitioners into conversation together, it’s clear that opinions can differ greatly between collaborators.
And so, heritage science is a haberdashery of balances—scientific inquiry and practical methodologies, weathering and damage, ageing and decaying—wrapped up in a beautiful zen concept of embracing the graceful flaws introduced by time implicit to all aspects of our world.
Brimblecombe & Grossi (2004). Aesthetics of Simulated Soiling Patterns on Architecture. Environ. Sci. Tech. 38, 3971–3976.
Brimblecombe & Gross (2005). Aesthetic thresholds and blackening of stone buildings. Sci. Total Environ. 349, 175–189.
Juniper, A. (2003). Wabi sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence. Tuttle: Tokyo, Rutland, Vermont; Singapore.