Marc Peter Keane mourns the runaway destruction of the city's historic wooden neighborhoods.
Preservation A residential lot in the middle of Kyoto stands shrouded in blue vinyl sheets, the
ubiquitous color of construction in Japan. A revving diesel engine throbs from within, followed
by a series of dull thuds and the sickening peal of splitting wood. The din continues for half an
hour, then falls silent. A large flap of blue vinyl pulls back, allowing a small dump truck
brimming with neatly stacked fragments of lumber to edge onto the street. Inside the cloaked
construction site sits a large-tracked demolition vehicle. Its worn metal claw rests atop a
haphazard mound of clay, roof tiles, and splintered beams. Behind the vehicle looms a partial
house, its interior rooms halved as in an architect's cross-section. The front half just departed in
the truck for the dump. The rest will follow shortly.
This pitiful sight is, sadly, common in Kyoto as the city's architectural heritage suffers the
preservation equivalent of genocide. A survey conducted by Kyoto University shows that 50,000
wooden structures were torn down between 1978 and 1988 alone--an average of 13 demolitions a
day, every day, for 10 full years. While more recent data is unavailable, that figure has by now
most likely doubled to 100,000. It is all but impossible to find a stretch of street with its original
Most victims were the elegant one- or two-story townhouses called machiya which, until the
1950s, blanketed Kyoto end to end, making it one of the finest examples in the world of a city
built of wood. Machiya are very much an architecture of the townsfolk, and the story of the
machiya is their story. Twelve hundred years ago, when Kyoto first arose as the imperial capital
of Heian, the nobles lived in grand estates known to us from ancient scroll paintings. The
townsfolk lived in hovels. By the early middle ages, however, the aristocracy gave way to the
military samurai class, and shortly thereafter the townsfolk--the craftsmen who manufactured all
manner of goods, and the merchants who sold them--began to make their own mark on the city.
With their newfound wealth and social status, they developed a particular kind of architecture