Shanghai is cracking under its own weight. Dozens of quickly-built new skyscrapers have blistered sidewalks and parks with fault lines, sinking the city an average 1.5 centimeters each year. The problem is so severe that city officials have axed many proposed skyscrapers, hoping to prevent additional damage. When seen individually, the cracks are most likely ignored by the average pedestrian, but when viewed together, they reveal a city that is struggling to cope with the speed of its own growth.
City officials repave and patch Shangai’s cracks with asphalt. Though these cracks are haphazardly covered, East Asia has a deep, rich history when it comes to cracks, especially in the arts, where they are valued as an opportunity for creativity.
In fifteenth century Japan, a shogun damaged a precious Chinese bowl, causing cracks to splinter across the small vessel. Fearful of the cracks growing, the shogun took the bowl to a craftsman and asked him to repair it in such a way that it would become more valuable than before. The craftsman filled the cracks with lacquer resin sprinkled with powdered gold. Called kintsugi, “golden joinery” in English translation, the technique became highly desired, and it wasn’t long before cracked and repaired pottery was more valuable than pristine vessels.
Kintsugi continues to fascinate and inspire. “Because the repairs are done with such immaculate craft, and in precious metal, it’s hard to read them as a record of violence and damage,” wrote Blake Gopnik, in his 2009 review of the exhibit “Golden Seams: The Japanese Art of Mending Ceramics,” held at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery. Next to a piece of pottery’s earthen-colored clay, the kintsugi gold cuts through, providing a sporadic action that arrests the eyes. Gopnik describes it as “a tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach.” He goes on to report that Japanese collectors were so kintsugi-obsessed that they were often accused of intentionally breaking their pottery just to have it repaired.
In a modernized twist on this tradition, designer Lotte Dekker encourages people to break pottery in her workshops. Dekker has created her own kintsugi-style repair kits containing Bison glue and an inexpensive gold powder (see video below). These kits may not be the real deal, but they encourage artists and non-artists alike to explore the art of repair. Dekker’s technique promotes the creation of new forms, where broken shards of pottery come together to form a new, almost animated shape, similar yet distant from the intact original.
More than just a means of repair, kintsugi promotes a hopeful philosophy; unexpected damage can be an opportunity. For Shanghai, the sidewalk cracks have slowed the rate of construction, leading officials to carefully vet new building proposals. Perhaps now, Shanghai will take a moment to reflect upon the bustling city it’s become. Shanghai may be struggling to cope with the speed of its own growth, but the breaks, bumps and scratches may have the potential to turn into something beautiful and unexpected.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.