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Saving Kyoto’s Machiya

How one of Japan’s most traditional examples of architecture is finally being preserved.

Words by Catherine Shaw

It is a curious irony that the ancient capital of Japan, renowned for its perfectly preserved temples and respect for traditional crafts, has ignored the destruction of one of its most valuable architectural gems: the machiya (townhouse).  Every year scores of the wooden houses, traditionally built for artisans and merchants and once home for most Kyoto residents, are destroyed erasing the traditional fabric of the city and its intangible way of life.

According to author, Japanophile and machiya restoration specialist Alex Kerr, this is because Kyotoites have been ashamed of their old houses.  “They were proof that Kyoto was ‘old-fashioned’ and not modern, like Tokyo.”  In an effort to respond to what he describes as the “massive destruction of Kyoto’s heritage” in 1994 Kerr established a company, called Iori,  dedicated to restoring and renting out machiya to tourists along the lines of rental villas in other historic cities, such as Prague.

Kerr, who travels Japan giving speeches on sustainable tourism, argues that Japan has never developed the ‘advanced technology’ necessary for restoration.  “Japan is very good at restoring old buildings as museums and historical memorabilia, the important temples of Kyoto are preserved in truly immaculate condition, but no thought ever went into how to preserve places where people work and live.  This is why, once beyond the mossy gates of old temples, the city of Kyoto looks like a ‘Bladerunner’ mess of concrete, glass, aluminum and flashing signs,” he says.

The reality is that people felt that they faced a difficult economic choice:  restore an old house at great expense making it historically correct but unusable, or tear it down.  Kerr says he offers a ‘middle way’ demonstrating that old machiya can be made modern, attractive, and comfortable, and that guests would pay to stay in them.  “People have got quite enthusiastic and a few copycat companies have sprung up in the last few years.  Towns and prefectural offices are now also waking up to the value of old neighborhoods, and that’s where we can help with practical advice.”

There are unique challenges to restoring traditional Japanese houses.  The first is structural: how to bring in modernity (plumbing, nice baths and toilets, insulation, air-conditioning, under-floor heating, lighting and ventilation, kitchens, etc.), while respecting the original structure.  “That involves removing decades or even a century of tacked-on additions, like unnecessary walls and ceilings, focusing on the original features of the house,” explains Kerr.  “We install support for earthquake protection — and sometimes we have to repair weakened foundations.  Most of what we do is in fact invisible, hidden behind walls or under the floors.”

The second challenge is aesthetic: how to integrate traditional materials (bamboo, wood, tatami, ceramic, tile, metal fittings, lanterns, etc) with modern building materials and appliances to create a comfortable modern-day living environment.  The third is how to do it economically, since one reason people tear down old houses is because they’re convinced that repairing them would be prohibitively expensive.  Before Iori the restoration model was set by government agencies that had no spending restrictions.  “The experts think nothing of pulling a whole house apart, numbering, measuring, and photographing each mortise and tendon, and then putting it all flawlessly back together again.  In a form, that’s nice to look at, true to the period, but unlivable.  So architects and designers have not developed a sensitive use of modern materials and cost consciousness,” says Kerr.

All work also has to be compliant with Japan’s stringent Building Code, as well as requirements of local authorities – and sometimes special wishes of the houses’ owners.  Fortuitously, the founding of Iori coincided with a new interest in tourism on the part of the City government bureaucracy which provided good support and low-interest loans.  Today, Iori has ten machiya within the heart of the old town.

Kerr is excited about his newest projects, one of which is a pair of adjoining houses in a quiet alley which allows for use as separate houses or as a large communal space.  The landlord owns the entire alley so it too will be restored and decorated.  Another fascinating project includes restoring a machiya with weaving atelier – Kerr plans to reinstall craftsmen weaving high-quality obi brocades.

While Iori’s restoration work has proved a success, Kerr says it remains “completely off the radar of the mainstream architectural establishment.  The bigger, the more dramatic the construction project, the more strongly it contrasts with, or even destroys the surrounding environment or historic neighborhood — this is seen as “creative”, “avant-garde”, “international,” and wins awards.  Architecture that sensitively blends into the surroundings is a minor genre in Japan. But in that quiet area, we’re getting noticed,” he says.

LOFT on London

Why you should be investing in London property and inspiration on what to buy right now.

Sponsored by IP Global.

Why would I buy in London?

London is a popular choice right now for investors looking for a market that provides stability, established property laws and mortgage financing. Over the last 12 months property prices in the capital have increased by 11.4%, marking the 11th consecutive month of positive price growth and the strongest annual growth experienced by any other region in UK and Wales. There is room for growth too, with prices still lower than their 2008 peak.

Where in London should I be buying?

Tower Hamlets – This borough just minutes from the City has performed well over the past year with prices increasing by 10.8% and in August rising by 0.6%. Rents in the area have increased by an impressive 18% over the last 12 months. Its relative affordability and expected high return on investment makes it an interesting location for investors looking for a foothold in the London market.

What is available there right now?

Investors might be interested in Myrdle Street (see gallery below) – a development in Tower Hamlets which still has three units available. The apartments (ranging from 582 to 1439 sq ft) feature fitted kitchens, designer bathrooms and balconies or gardens and Old Spitalfields Market is just a short walk away. The development combines strong capital growth prospects with a steady and reliable income with prices ranging from GBP370,000 – 675,000.

Zoning In

The 2012 Summer Olympics should reap rewards for London property investors, attracting regeneration in much of East London. Tower Hamlets, designated as one of the five official host boroughs, is set to prosper, with a new East London underground line improving transport links with the rest of the city. A recent report by Lloyds TSB found that average property prices in East London have risen by 26% since the announcement in 2005 that the area will host the Olympics and many Chinese investors are now showing interest in London property having seen the effect of the Olympics on property in Beijing.

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Has Dubai had its day?

Words by Ben Thompson

Our resident columnist delves into the heady world of record-breaking builds and budgets of the Middle East metropolis

For a long time Dubai seemed to be the Promised Land for property developers; a place where nothing was too big, too expensive or too ambitious, where anyone with ambition could make money amidst the arid desert sands.

In three decades, the Emirate transformed from a Middle Eastern sea-port into a booming desert metropolis, boasting the world’s biggest, most expensive and most luxurious buildings, as well as its wealthiest expats knocking back drinks in the region’s swankiest bars.

It was to the credit of Dubai’s rulers that they didn’t sit back on their oil reserves back in the 1970s, instead deciding to diversify the economy into tourism and financial services. But as the population of the Emirate grew it was real estate that became Dubai’s biggest earner, contributing more than 20% to GDP in 2005 and continuing to be a dominant force well into 2008, when the rest of the world was rocked by financial uncertainty.

And then Dubai began to crumble. Expats started losing their jobs, drills fell silent and construction projects were halted. The last 12 months have seen bailouts follow resignations and a 50% slump in property prices across the Emirate. Dubai’s state-owned construction company, Dubai World, recently admitted to having US$60 billion of debts on its books, and last month the company came within hours of an embarrassing fire sale of some of its most prized assets.

A report in September by real estate consultancy firm Prolead discovered that of the 1,500 ongoing development projects in Dubai worth over US$10 million, more than one third had been put on hold or cancelled. At Cityscape – the Emirate’s annual property expo – attendance was down 30% on 2008. At the end of 2009, it seems that Dubai has hit rock bottom.

And let’s face it, for those of us on the outside, there has been something strangely compelling about it all. The Emirate’s insane rate of development over the past decade was never sustainable, and their “ignore it and it’ll go away” mentality to the global recession was shortsighted, if not staggeringly arrogant. Perhaps the crash is a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

Or perhaps it’s a new dawn. Even with their build, build, build mentality, ambition was never the problem for Dubai’s developers; it was their supreme lack of realism in thinking that investors would throw money at any project that had a superlative in its brief. As well as some seriously unlucky timing.

Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has admitted as much, claiming in an interview last month that in the aftermath of the economic crisis, the Emirate would be studying the ‘viability’ of projects more closely. Sheik Mohammed, like many others in Dubai, realises that in their ever-increasing scope and size, development projects got a little out of hand.

So in 2010 and beyond, maybe the fall of Dubai will turn out to be a good thing for the real estate industry, and the Emirate’s economy as a whole. In the future, developers will not be so reckless in drawing up vast, unrealistic and above all, insanely expensive schemes, and investors will think twice before putting their cash into off-plan real estate. With the financial crisis easing off, and property prices widely believed to have bottomed out in Dubai, it will not be long before expatriates return and shrewd investors move in. Then, no doubt, the cycle will start again, except this time; hopefully, everybody will have learned a few lessons.

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