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Saving Kyoto’s Machiya

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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.

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