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The Japanese Machiya

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The machiya (町家) is a Japanese urban housing type. Their name translates as “town-house”. They’re basically rooms around a two-storey lightwell. We’re familiar with Tadao Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi House that’s said to be a modern interpretation.

Waro Kishi’s 1987 Kim House is less familiar. Having the bridge on the side makes its courtyard brighter and less oppressive than the courtyard in the Ando house. The machiya is simply one of those housing typologies that works irrespective of time, materials and construction. You’d probably have to be Japanese to appreciate the “closeness to the seasons” aspects of them that we, from a warm distance, see such charm in. Despite the Japanese tendency to over-asetheticize the beauty of seasonal change rather than add some insulation, these little houses have much embodied intelligence.


The annual average humidity in the Kansai region and Kyoto in particular is around 70% but when combined with temperatures above 30°C, is extremely oppressive. Moisture doesn’t need much prompting to condense. Evaporative cooling is your friend and thus so is cross ventilation. Luckily, wind speed picks up in summer. These tight-packed houses work better with a central courtyard that, like courtyards around the world, contains cool night air longer into the day and generates heat-shedding convention airflow at night.


This recent detached house uses those same principles on its 55 sq.m plot with 50cm setbacks on all sides to ensure ventilation around and across. Somewhat humbly, it reminds me of one of mine from years back except, in Gravesend, Kent, I was more concerned with overlooking than cross ventilation. These houses were capable of being either row houses or cluster houses but any window on an external wall was a bonus for daylight, ventilation and view.


Even Ando’s Sumiyoshi/Azuma house has paired small windows low down on the walls of each room to facilitate airflow, if not cross ventilation. You can see two of them in this next image. Please notice that rear corner while we’re around the back.


Waro Kishi’s 1986 Kim House was rebuilt in 2011 to have a central internal void rather than a courtyard.


This is another recent incarnation of the machiya as two joined houses. It’s close to perfect. I particularly like the distinction between the habitable rooms and the non-habitable spaces on the ground floor. Notice how it’s possible to go in one house and out the other without passing through a habitable room? You can see it’s an updated version of this next plan. It hasn’t changed much. In fact, it’s the same. The room on the left is a shop facing the street and with an inner room that faces another inner room across a courtyard. Many machiya have shops on the street side – it’s the reason why they’re in cities.  In this next example, the front shop and the non-habitable spaces all have earthen floors. (You only have to change shoes once.) This next is a house above a restaurant for maybe ten people. Family meals are cooked in the shop. The central courtyard has become a void above the kitchen, topped by a skylight opening into a third-floor courtyard/lightwell/airshaft.

There’s the shop at the front accessed from the lobby that leads into the house proper via the kitchen. Above the kitchen is a double-height space onto which all rooms face ensuring cross ventilation. Heat from the kitchen would generate a stack effect in that double height space to induce cross ventilation even when there was no wind. Much like Arabian wind catchers, it’s not that effective, but it’s better than nothing. The principles work and for some people they’re enough – but obviously not these people, as evidenced by the disguised A/C compressors.


We need more typologies like this. The closest we have to such perfection in Western/European architecture is probably the corridor-accessed one-bedroom apartment. This next example is perfect.


The circulation space isn’t an extra – it’s what makes it work. You can’t have more than six doors opening into 2 sq.m. The extra 1 sq.m comes from having to walk past the bedroom wardrobe and the kitchen units to get to two of the doors. It’s beautiful. There’s other things interesting about this project but “like clouds floating across the landscape” isn’t one of them.

Some of the plans in this next project for social housing in São Paulo by Vigliecca & Associates are extremely evolved.

Their type C and type D are good

but I particularly like their 2-bedroom type A not least of all because its rigour reminds me of the Type A from the 1928 Types Study by the team led by Moisei Ginzburg and whose story we shall resume shortly.

A four- and five-person Type A

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  • says:

    Hi Graham,

    Thanks for writing a great blog – I’m a particular fan of the Misfit’s page and the attention to social housing rather than just endless money spinners (like the one I live in now…)

    I stumbled across this:

    I thought the idea of a ‘Generation House’ with self contained annex was a good idea – and realised that it fits rather neatly with some of the Machiya ideas outlined above…