Sometimes, when I look at the city that is evolving before my eyes, I am reminded of the Japanese phrase ‘mono no aware’. Its exact definition eludes me, but so are many profoundly amazing things around the world that defies my limited vocabulary. My unrefined understanding of the phrase defines it as the tender melancholy that surrounds the deep appreciation of a transient beauty and its inevitable passing — after all, nothing ever really lasts. However, an article by the Suntory Museum of Art in Japan offers an alternative: “Use of the Chinese character for ‘sad’ to render the Japanese word aware associates mono no aware with sad or fleeting experiences. That nuance is however not intrinsic to the phrase, whose essence is the experience of being deeply moved by emotions that may include joy and love, as well sadness.”
Either way, a heaviness hangs in my heart as I watch the city change. I recognise its impermanent nature and its perpetual incompleteness, but I struggle to cope with the pace that it is happening. A little bit of my heart cracks with the shattering concrete of a building that has reached its time, and yet I stubbornly search for meaning in between the cracks.
As the surrounding earth gets excavated for new infrastructure, and new neighbours move in, the buildings that still stand know that it is a matter of time. Being able to witness the passing of history all these years has been a privilege and this is inevitable. They are just biding their time; all of us are.
Just like the phrase ‘mono no aware’, it is in this relentless change that a curious appreciation of the city arises. In the midst of not knowing what to make of what’s left of the city we once knew, every pause in the city becomes more valuable, and every moment savoured deeper. We try to prolong the existence of the spaces and buildings in our memory through words and images. We create archives of stories that we may one day retell ourselves and our children. We construct meaning out of all this meaninglessness.
It is in that moment, even for us whose relationship with the building is from a distance, are deeply moved by its inevitable passing. If nostalgia is a dirty word, we allow ourselves to be the most vulgar of beings. If sadness is a gloomy thunderstorm, we gladly get drenched in the rain. If love is a thorny rose, we allow ourselves to bleed in order to enjoy its beauty. In the moment that we do not recognise our own city, we are once again in touch with our human emotions.
The city is constantly changing. The buildings that mean so much to many will cease to exist. But if we can bring ourselves to embrace its transient nature, we may just end up not mourning its passing, but rejoicing in its once glorious life. In the face of constant change, it is human to wish we have more time to connect to the built environment around us. But perhaps we can seek the poetic beauty in all this, for it is the absence of connectedness that has brought us all here.
– First published in April 2016 for the publication, VIRUS by Fable – For the full tactile print experience featuring the photographs and other essay contributions, get the publication at the VIRUS website or at BooksActually. —