My father, an enthusiastic but terrible singer, was also a fan of piano and big band jazz music. My older brother Steve and I occasionally put one of his old 78 rpm albums on the record player so he could reminisce about seeing these musicians in places like Chicago, where he was stationed during the war.
On the rare times he would sit down at the piano, Daddy would play one of two songs. The first was The St. Louis Blues. The second ― which came from his love of the elegant jazz pianist Teddy Wilson ― was Body and Soul. I can still remember that tune and the way he imitated Wilson’s graceful stylings. I have to admit that I didn’t know the song had lyrics until much later. Thankfully, my father did not sing along!
I was thinking about Body and Soul in the context of our trip on the Mekong River when I was reading from the works of Malaysian architect Laurence Loh, one of the foremost conservation specialists in the region. Loh writes and speaks about how historic sites convey a spirit of place, or their cultural essence. And he suggests that the concept here in Southeast Asia may be better understood if one alludes to the notion of “body and soul.”
For Loh, the body is “the physical fabric of the heritage site. The soul is the sum of the site’s history, traditions, memories, myths, associations, and continuity of meaning connected with people and use over time.” As the song suggests, the singer is “all there for you, body and soul.” It isn’t body or soul. Similarly with heritage places, the two are intertwined, but that isn’t always how these places are perceived in the West. Differences between preservation and conservation practices in the West and in Southeast Asia was the theme of my first lecture on the trip, and I explored those differences in terms of how time is interpreted in the two cultures, the importance of intangible heritage in Southeast Asia, and the need for cultural mapping to fully understand our heritage areas.
I won’t go into detail in this post, as I simply wanted to capture some of the places and people we encountered in our first few days in Vietnam. This Eastern approach to time, however, where the culture doesn’t see people as trying to control time, was evident everywhere we turned and in the comments of our local guides. The adaptation of humans to time is seen as a viable alternative to our western (linear) approach. “Time is viewed neither as linear nor event–relationship related, but as cyclical. Each day the sun rises and sets, the seasons follow one another, the heavenly bodies revolve around us, people grow old and die, but their children reconstitute the process. Cyclical time is not a scarce commodity. There seems always to be an unlimited supply of it just around the next bend.”
As they say in Southeast Asia, when God made time, He made plenty of it.
The longevity of civilizations has meant an appreciation for tradition, for things old. This has included appreciation for traditional buildings, traditional ways of working, for both the tangible and the intangible elements of culture — the body and soul. Of course there are challenges to this approach including Western-style development, Western approaches to preservation focused on monuments, and interventions from other countries such as with China’s Belt and Road program — issues I explore more completely in my second lecture on this trip.
Laurence Loh says that the tangible/intangible plays out in conservation practice by allowing what is living to stay alive and true to the place. “It is about letting the architecture, the traditions, and the cultural essence live on with minimal intervention. If change is necessary, the change must be so seamless that very quickly it becomes absorbed in the original value system. Before long, it attains its own meaning and becomes part of the collective memory, as if it has always been there as part of the place.”
Buddhist beliefs around permanence and time also affect attitudes about architecture. If humans go through a cycle of birth, life, death, and re-birth why shouldn’t buildings do the same? Both East and West would agree that the spirit of place resides in its authenticity, and that’s a critical element in heritage conservation.
Identifying the authentic elements that define the character of a place and convey its spirit is usually not a cut and dried process. To do so successfully, we have to engage with and listen to those who live in these communities.
“There is authenticity in form and function as well as meaning, helping to preserve the cultural essence, enhancing the spirit of place.” Function and meaning provide authenticity that a simple focus on restoring architectural details cannot. “Spirit of place comes alive not just in the ways a site is conserved and presented, but in the way it is used and valued by people.” Laurence Lou notes that good conservation and preservation, in the eastern understanding of the words, helps a community animate the space. How a place is animated by its community gives it meaning.
In the best of the eastern preservation and conservation projects, the community has a role to play. “By taking part in the conservation work, and the using and maintaining the building after it is conserved, the community breathes life into the site, invigorating its spirit of place.
While it should not be true in any context, it is especially important to understand that authentic places in the East are not preserved in amber. And their authenticity comes not only from the physical structure, but from the history, traditions, memories, myths, associations, and continuity of meaning connected with people and use over time. What’s known as the intangible heritage of a site.
We saw that in abundance in our first days here along the Mekong River.
More to come…
Image of mountains in Vietnam from Pixabay. All other images by DJB.