AAVV: Aegean Achitecture

AAVV: Aegean Achitecture

Posted April 20th, 2009 by webmaster




Small barren islands emerging on the bluest of seas, most of the Aegean Islands are desolate and austere. The light here is dazzling, the sun singes, colors are strikingly bright, and winds, when they begin to blow, are pitiless. On these islands one can still observe the primitive typological disposition of long-gone ages. The flavor of ancient paganism is still lingering on. In these parts, an island can be a man’s shelter from the brutality of an inconstant nature, the scent of wild flowers, the warmth, humanity and hospitality of the inhabitants. But it can also be the produce of the turmoil of nature.    
    Duality is a fundamental component in the Aegean whether it be the Aegean island itself of the Aegean islander The latter though had not only to cope with nature’s adversities. History in the Aegean has been equally brutal, as the islands were persistently under invasions and dominations by pirates, Turks, Franks. His never-ending distress in fear and waiting had to find refuge in houses closely set together, literally attached to each other, with re-enforced  walls and with as few openings as possible. Houses with secret passages connecting them so that the entire the village was one hidden arc. Stricken by poverty, necessity and fright as he was, he had to build narrow, winding streets, taking advantage of   the space he had at his disposal, which was never enough. He thus created the “covered balconies”, extra rooms protruding from the top-floors completely shading and almost covering the narrow street below. He had to cut the walls out in “bevelled” corners, to make room for the grape-loads and the cows, resting-props for the tired worker. Even the place to gather for dancing and celebration, the village’s square, had to be done hurriedly and opportunely, neither space nor money being sufficient to allow for the re-organization of the houses around.
    The renowned French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), being influenced by the Aegean architecture and especially that of  Mykonos, came to the conception of architecture as being “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought and set together in light”. It is true that, regardless of local variations, these unique elements are common to the Egean alone. Here we can observe a combination of the plastic quality of sculpture with that the principles of geometry, with the play of light on whitewashed surfaces or, more rarely, with the finely tuned use of striking colors. There is an general rhythm of repetition without resulting in monotony.
    The Aegean towns  belong to a common cultural and formal tradition which goes back to at least the Minoan age. Their contemporary form however, is derived from the period of the Byzantine decline in this area, approximately the 13th century A.D. And what is really worth of notice is that these towns have remained essentially untouched by industrial revolution’s influences.
    Simple people have been and remain to this very day architects and builders of their own houses, all in one, a fact that together with the accumulated wisdom of such a long series of generations, has contributed to shape a peculiar human architecture. An architecture based on immediate use and necessity rather than on any speculative creativity. Inborn are certain traditional principles concerning the structure of the buildings and their maintenance, also laying prohibitions on the height, criteria  about the air, light and view possibilities and determining dimensions of streets and floor-spaces for making human or animal circulation, the easiest possible.
    The general reliability depends also on the element of repetition (Naxos constitutes a typical example of this); all aspects from their smaller to their larger scale (from windows, chimneys, doors to the entirety of a building, church or street), have between them such a connection in measure, as to create a clearly perceptible rhythm. To this, the limited building methods and materials and the general whitewashing largely have contributed. As for the use of the human scale, it is the one which completes this uniformity. It is seen from the analogy of the whole town’s structure helping to make orientation easy, and the whole town’s dimension which is always such as to be quite easily covered on foot. This characteristic of the “human” dimension of the town is of the greatest importance as it enables the inhabitants to respond to public space as to a part of his own private abode, and to this, the existence of strong emotional ties between the islanders and the high degree of communication is owed. The exceptionally free use of public space can best be seen in the Aegean island’s street. Here, streets are certainly non made for the modern car. They follow the slopes of the ground, often have steps and of course they are usually very narrow. Yet the most relevant difference is that the street  does not function as a breaking element, but as an element that joins and brings space together. It is the space where people trade, play, socialize , and even where the house’s functions can continue beyond the threshold.


    The architectural prototype of the most ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea, has been the one born of the  horizontality of the desert. From Egypt to Persia, Palestine, Phoenicia, Greece and Africa, the building is a true child of the desert. It bears the element of deprivation and humility, through the lack of wood, the brutality of the winds, and the abundance of schists. Characteristically it ends in the flat roof with no tiles (“doma” as it is called in the Greek of the Aegean), a tradition that has proved eternal.
    In spite of the islands’ troubled history which is full of invasions and frequent visits by all the nations of Eastern Mediterranean, their architecture was formed in strict simplicity which remained a unique one, well adjusted and faithful to the organic clarity and logic of the firstly built towns, while also absorbing to some extent the many different and opposing foreign influences. The peasant here, whose very life depends oh his field, usually very rarely lives anywhere near it (this is especially seen in the Cyclades); so the rural buildings are very few, just simple shelters. The usually communal cultivation of the land which is mainly poor and infertile, has also contributed to forming this islander’s character, as collaborative, friendly and hospitable. A complicated net of paths, like the arteries of a living organism, connects the villages to the fields and to the many scattered churches. In the village, the houses mostly united with each other. Have uniform, symmetrical façades: the front door with   three windows, one on each side, and a third one over it. The top part of the front door itself, opens like a window, allowing more air and light to enter.
Many houses have only one room, but the majority consists of two identical spaces, one used during the day, the other for sleeping, separated by a structure imitating the façade. Rain-water is gathered in cisterns, especially in the Cyclades where water shortage is an open wound.
    Mirroring the functional side of men and women, which is very differentiated here (men working in the fields, women in the house), the interior of the house is characterized  by a formalized order and cleanliness. Spaces used for daily occupations are kept free of tools and other objects which are hidden in cupboards or storerooms. The courtyard itself functions as an extra room; washing, crushing grapes, eating and celebrating, all take place here. It also functions as the connection between the house proper, storing room and stable.
    The tradition of whitewashing and specifically that of literally drowning all external wall surfaces in whitewash, is a comparatively recent custom, depending on the historical circumstances. Generally, it was around the time just after the Greek revolution of 1821 against the Turks dominating in the mainland, that the islanders dared to give their houses this happy look. The previous fear of pirates especially had compelled them to keep their villages dark and well hidden among the dark bulk of rocks, protected like true eagles’ nests. Only when this threat had subsided could the islanders breathe freely and at least feel free to externalize their weakness for purity of white which until then they had been confined to enjoy in the interior use only. Interior  whitewashing is still so much sought after because after it makes the room brighter (for windows are usually very few and small), through forming a reflecting surface. As for external whitewashing it also has the advantage of keeping the walls dry.
    The common adjectives used to describe Aegean architecture, is cubic. In Skyros, the cubes are covered by flat roofs of gray clay; in Thera the cube is a right-angle space with a vault, over which, often, such a roof is added. The shape of the building is a result of its over-all function, formed by the character of the Aegean nature, and as such, it is “right” like nature itself.


    The Aegean carries the remembrance of the oldest of times when man-made circular or elliptical houses were built with twigs, canes and mud. The stone houses of the contemporary islander, still retain the fondness of the circular, the denial of straight lines and hard, right angles, the attraction to the irregular, the uncertain, in short the “living” in tits unpredictability. The twig-built hut is repeated in stone, in the Aegean, as seen in the narrowness of the façade, the great length of plan, the few and small openings in obscure places, like holes rather than windows and in the generally extrovert quality of the house with the yard at the front. And then there is the contrasting mood of the also ancient introvert movement, when the courtyard is placed at the center with the rooms surrounding it, without having reason to be inter-connected any more. Instead, they are more private and self-sufficient. In this latter case, the extrovert element is to be found only in the terrace, the open and enclosed typically Aegean terrace, the victim of the winds, but also the one with the advantage of the unique view, the dream-seat of the house, the place of escape, of aspirations. Often a snake-like staircase  leads to the terrace which may be often decorated with curved openings; the are both white, a white interrupted only by the crudeness of the wall surfaces, or the wrinkles of the thin schist slabs on the top of a window or a door. Or also, to express a sudden happiness, come the reliefs on the top of the main door, on the windows or the terrace. Carved asymmetry then play with the symmetry of whiteness and the simplicity of vertical lines.
    When the oldest custom dominates, the windows are hidden, dark holes often set at an angle, they appear on the roof, they could be mistaken for the orifice of a well, the spying eye of a fortress. Their primitive stone and wooden frames are built in hurried irregularity. The refinement and the clarity approaching perfection, are subsequent; a calm arch on the top, a carved stone-amulet with angels, stars and birds; even renaissance-like shapes always in an imitation which is never blind, but creative.
    In doors frames again, the oldest traditions (like the Lesbian moulding), are combined with the Byzantine or the later folk elements: winding helixes, flowers, cypresses, pigeons geometrically executed waves, in subtle rhythms.


    In skylights, the soft shape of the circular and semi-circular alternate, decorated with small, even holes, a sun with its beams, a cross, an enigmatic  knot, two hearts: the decorative and the symbolic are harmoniously combined in these graceful carvings. In the variety of shapes of the yard-doors, the baroque or neoclassical sometimes appear, making them look awkward, superfluously following one of these fashions that remain un-authentically ephemeral. Suddenly the harmony of well balanced analogies is disturbed; the dome, the arc and the circle make their appearance in the unexpected richness of their shapes. But not one of these features will prevail over the other, for there exists a principle in the Aegean to respect simplicity, and through that alone to achieve the picturesque element. There are no pretences, no high-mindedness, no forced effort for novelty in these soft shapes in white. They stand naked and innocent having acquired the knowledge of generations, and still, having surpassed it.
    Multi-color use remains rare and as such it is an unexpected surprise in the general neutrality of the absoluteness of white. Through some mostly forgotten Byzantine survival of strange carpet-designs on the surface of external walls, is derived the “graffito” pattern on the houses of Chios. But such examples remain the exception.
    Usually simplicity of form is interrupted by the strange shapes of chimneys resembling mythological creatures in miniature. Even gutters are decorated, always with the strange charm of the awkward traits of folk-art. And finally the floor, and often the yard, have their small pebbles arranged in geometric or naturalistic patterns.


    The interior of the house could be reminiscent of a cave of shelter, then, in its function,, it could be a wooded forest of natural forms, crude, simplistic, but always clear and comprehensible. The beams of the roof create a peaceful harmony in alternating parallels of horizontal and vertical lines. The wooden lofts often bring a tone of luxury which is otherwise rare. The fire-place is built into all kinds of shapes. As furniture, a piece of a tree-trunk in natural form may be used, which later will develop into an elegant stool or carved chair. Pottery is constituted by painted ceramic plates often creating a proper “wall-painting”, as squashed together, they may often cover a whole wall.
    As a last relic of the old way of life, the windmills stand as unique structures which combine the Aegean characteristics of the arch and the circular lines, with the Asiatic element of the minaret. They are the most courageous and patient figures in defiance of the wild Aegean winds. Finally the familiar shape of another mostly Cycladic structure: the pigeon-house. A symphony of geometric outlines in schist, with circles, rhombs, fine lines, stars; it makes a true nest for the winged symbols of peace. Today the pigeon-houses stand as monuments to the Venetians, whose love for pigeons was taken over by the islanders. Their decorative motifs, the triangular holes, follow three basic patterns: the diamond, the sun and the cypress, all of unknown origin which, whether symbolic, magic or religious, have remained unchanged for centuries.


    The characteristic custom of innumerable churches built both in the villages and in the country, is repeated more than typically in the Aegean. For each human sorrow or suffering, for every aspect of their hard life, the islanders have built a church. Like Christianity’s mystical and symbolic threefold dogma of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the church is also built as threefold, both lengthwise and widthwise, in cross-pattern thus completing its symbolism. The building has always been the humble oblong structure in imitation of the domestic dwelling; the house of God, as human as the house of man. The differences lie mainly in the three following ways of roofing: 1) in the flat-roofed church which culminates in a terrace (doma), 2) in the vaulted church and 3) in the wooden-roofed church.
    The oldest form of the flat-roofed church, the humblest of all, is the most basic of structures; sometimes its internal walls may have an inward inclination. Then, in time, with the increase of the pious, the church begins to widen and to acquire pseudo-vaults (which are the primary form of the vaulted church proper), which remain characteristic of the Aegean architecture. The vaulted churches display as many variants as the flat-roofed church in the number of aisles, arches etc. In the very same church there used to take place a combined service of both Catholic and Orthodox Christians, a widespread custom in the Aegean in all the types of churches. The foreign, mainly French influences, are seen in the two altars co-existing in the same church, in the decoration, in the angular and not as usually semi-circular arches.
    Finally there come the wooden-roofed churches which also never managed to be nothing more than an ephemeral presence among the Aegean favorite types prevailing over all others: the flat-roofed church with a “doma”.
    The rarest of all Aegean churches are the three-aisled basilicas, with no vault, standing apart from the general profusion of vaulted churches. The dominant atmosphere in all types of churches, is that of the East. They possess a sweet feeling of peacefulness, a certain dreaminess that soothes reaching to one’s very heart. In a combination aimed to prove the Universality of Christianity, one is also met with scattered Western, French or Pontos elements. There are no barriers here, it is the house of God and it rejects nothing and no one. The varieties are endless, the forms alternating, accumulating. Surprises come, a joy to the eye: a wall of stones creating a most unusual release, with a pattern formed solely by the accidental: a carved star, a flower, a ceramic plate looking strangely misplaced on the façade of a church, but at the same time representing a  moving, most human presence; and when the walls are white, the subtlety of oneiric shapes on the surface that transforms itself with the slightest change of light.
    Above everything reigns the vault, the pagan remnant of the most ancient form of housing, the cave. Sometimes it is covered with silvery tiles, thin and flat and undulating like fish scales; or with protruding stones that make it look like a huge hedgehog. But the element that dominates most, is the blue of the sky with shameless nudity, caressed  into the most voluptuous of shapes. This great idolater child of the East, has also been used by the ancients, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians or Muslims. Even the austerity of Byzantium, unable to resist its temptation, had to yield to it.
    The interior of the church reflects the same law of variety. Sometimes it is humbly simple, sometimes it embraces you with sweeping curves from all sides. The symbol of Greekness, the double-headed eagle of ancient times and of Byzantium, remnant of past glories, appears frequently between the humble schist floor-slabs. Then the altar-screen, often childishly plain and devoid of icons, or so richly adorned that is it the only cry of luxury in the general humility. It is when the Byzantine memories return that its wooden or, later, marble surface comes to be so wondrously carved, so that the occult and the religious are once more united. Finally come the graceful candle-sticks and stalls, always sustaining the law of simplicity; these are the purely Greek creations, servants to the authentic only. Much of the rest of the ecclesiastical furniture follows no such rule thus adding to the atmosphere of the variable and irregular, as it often wears the dress of foreign influence.


    This fortress of the pious reminds one of a different way of life. In the middle of the wilderness, a building stands solitary. The eye discerns  impenetrable walls, a tower, a heavy hermetically closed door.  A proper fortress. Those inside, are safe, safe from all the aggressors , the pirates, even the worst of all enemies, poverty and sheer hunger. Everything among them is shared, and as the monastery is always built near some more or less fertile land, at least the basic necessities are not lacking. Introspection is the proper word here. The cells of the monks, the church, the communal rooms, everything functions and is hidden behind the thick, blind, external walls. When Western influence pervades, the monastery’s heart and soul, its church, stands no more in the middle of the open  central yard, as the proper Orthodox custom will have it. The yard, then, remains naked, as the church joins the rest of the buildings, exiled in a denial of the Orthodox line of values. The typically Aegean yard, surrounded by open-air terraces, is rare in the Aegean monastery where everything is built to achieve the greatest possible safety and shelter. So, the terrace of the monasteries are mostly covered, sheltered by the soft curves of arches. Inseparable companions in a corner stand the little garden and the  cypress or palm-trees instead.
    Inside, the beehive of cells. Tinny, humble, with the minimum of convenience, the only luxury being the vast number of fireplaces resulting in the picturesque forest of chimneys. Then, the cold endless passages simply dressed in white. And the communal room. Its use? To keep alive. The black-clothed figures will unite there stopping in their daily way from hope to prayer; first the church, then some food, then withdrawl to the cell and isolation. The communal room always faces to the east with three conches on the eastern wall, the middle one housing the abbot’s table, the other two for the long tables of the other monks.
    The yard constitutes the completion and connection of the whole structure. It is the sole possessor of an altogether different element: freedom. It alone, has the precious advantage of being able to openly look at the sky; the monastery breathes through it.