In the context of reinterpretation of the traditional town-house machiya for contemporary usage we have to start our considerations on the level of city-planning. The traditional Japanese town consisted of one or two stories high wooden structures in which temples and its pagodas would function as landmarks. One famous example is the pagoda of Toji temple which until recently determined the maximum building height in Kyoto to 31 meters.
Due to a very dense building style often combining housing and shop or workshop as reflected in the machiya architecture, the city centers were densely populated with many shops lining the streets. The cityscape was as well unified through material and building style and at the same time lively due to the commercial activities taking place in the first floor of each building. Nevertheless, the volume of a traditional town house determined by the horizontal grid of the narrow and deep plots as well by the vertical frame of two stories was to small to accommodate new building types like offices, shopping centers and multi-family housing complexes.
As a result, due to the expansive economic development after the war, two stories wooden buildings were replaced rapidly by higher steel and concrete buildings and the town-scape of most Japanese cities changed fundamentally. Buildings of all shapes, materials and heights sprout like mushrooms and the connection between neighboring buildings and public space became arbitrary resulting in a loss of each cities unified character.
Even though the Japanese government made a considerable effort for the protection of a few outstanding religious buildings since the Meiji period and the twenties, only in the 1970ies the value of assemblies of traditional vernacular buildings was taken into consideration. In 1972 Sanneizaka near Kiyomizu temple followed by Gion Shimbashi in 1974 were designated as a Special Preservation Area of Traditional Buildings, which was later developed into a system called Preservation Districts for Groups of Historic Buildings (Den-ken).
In these districts the preservation or restoration of the exterior of the buildings to the original traditional style is compulsory and the expenses are partially covered by grant subsidies. The number of 7 districts in 1976 is rising to 49 nowadays spread all over Japan, with most of them developed into tourist-highlights.
The Gion Shimbashi preservation district includes about 100 households on 1.4 hectares located in the famous Gion area, with teahouses lining the street almost same as in the late Edo period. The Shirakawa-river with its cherry trees and streets paved with stones like in old days add to the scenic beauty of this very small area, which is surrounded by a modern night-life district with buildings full of fancy bars and restaurants. The number of real teahouses hosting Geishas is of course decreasing, and normal restaurants, bars and shops are opened inside the traditional houses.
The big challenge for a commercial building here is to attract people into the area and into the building itself, which looks due to the nature of its traditional facade style, which has to be preserved, rather closed to the outside.