Thursday, February 8, 2007

The old machiya. Fashionable, in spite of their agony

Jordi Juste. Kyoto
Lately, the buildings that catch the attention of trends magazines in Kyoto are old wood houses. They are called “machiya” (town houses) and are the survivors of the modernization that threatens a type of construction that, until the 60’s, occupied most of the city. After decades being considered uncomfortable relics, now they are receiving the attention of institutions and trendsetters, who have discovered their charm as shops and houses. Among the renewed machiya there is even a Spanish restaurant, El Fogón, opened in February 2006 near City Hall.
The machiya are not only old wood houses; they are witnesses to an aesthetic and a lifestyle that many people, tired of concrete and stress, want to recover. In addition, "they are important to conserve the Kyoto with a Kyoto flavor", as says Yuki Nakamura, from the Center for the Preservation of the Urban Landscape.
Although variations exist, the machiya are characterized by their extended structure, with two floors and a narrow facade. In the first place, there is a space to be used as store or workshop, from where the living quarters can be accessed. In between there is often a patio and in the rear a warehouse. The grounds are made of tatami or wood and many walls are sliding doors that allow a variety of uses for the space.
The machiya appeared about five hundred years ago as lodging for craftsmen and retailers. The many earthquakes and fires the city has undergone served to make them evolve. Already in the XX century, they survived World War II thanks to the fact that Kyoto was spared the bombings. The Americans understood that the city was not a valuable military objective and resigned to destroy it just for the sake of mining the Japanese moral.
As soon as they recovered sovereignty, the Japanese dedicated themselves to the conservation of palaces, sanctuaries and temples. But they forgot popular architecture, and tens of thousands of houses were demolished to leave space to blocks of apartments and offices of anodyne looks.
Estimates indicate that there are around 20,000-machiya left in Kyoto, but it is already difficult to find zones were several stay still on contiguously. Most of the times they are boxed between buildings of five or more floors. According to Yuki Nakamura the destruction of the old town houses continues, in spite of the fashion to adapt them for commerce. In addition, the commercial adaptation is not always the ideal solution. "When they are used as restaurants and stores, sometimes reforms, like clearing columns, are made, debilitating the building and making it difficult to recover them as houses later", Nakamura explains.
"To guarantee their future, the machiya have to be made resistant to earthquakes and also compatible with a modern lifestyle", ads Nakamura. That means spending a lot of money. The problem is that most of this venerable buildings are in the central districts of Kyoto, meaning that their economic value is far below the prices of the lands where they stand.

First appeared in El Periódico de Catalunya:

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