The dilemma of rural architecture – part III (Greece)

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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Attached is also my article for the local newspater „Thasion Gi“ of May 2008, published in Greek language):

Whose „tradition“ is it anyway?

The more the remains of authentic cultural heritage vanish from the rural environment, the more often the term „tradition“ is being misused for the promotion of all kinds of phenomena which are interpreted as genuine, but in real terms resemble only substitutes, imitations or trendy fashions and are in fact not traditional at all.

On Thassos the old inland villages are declared „Traditional Settlements“ – and protected as such by Presidential Decree (FEK of 13 – 11 – 1978, No. 594). But in practice only in those villages which decided by themselves to preserve the architectural heritage, Panagia in the first place, these legally binding restrictions are being largely observed. The Poleodomia Kavalas (=district planning authority) follows the trend and grants building permissions for any structure from any material, without respect to the rules as laid down in the law of 1978 for villages in disregard of their conservation status being officially listed as „traditional“ or not. Unfortunately, all the old villages are littered and defaced now by ugly, style-less buildings which were officially endorsed by building permissions.

I have observed this tragic development since the 1970s. Our complains and interventions were in vain. There was no support by the authorities and no concerted, efficient initiative of conservation measures by the local people neither. And now, as the authentic old houses are becoming a minority image even of villages like Kazaviti that is being regarded still as much traditional, new fashions of „traditional“ styles invade the old quarters and replace the simple beauty of what remained from the forefathers times. And for this alarming deterioration and fashionable, pseudo-rustic development respectable subsidies are being granted under the LEADER + programme; what a shambles!

Some years ago I went to the Ministry of the Environment to meet the head of the section for Traditional Settlements. I asked him on which basis the term „traditional“ is being defined in respect to the law FEK No. 594…. And I had to learn that there is no definition attached what „traditional“ actually means: consequently this law of 1978 is rather useless as it contains no defined reference. So I am presenting here some signinificant elements of what „tradition“ means and how its characteristics should be applied in village planning.

Nobody can make traditions; they have been brought forward (=“para-dosis“) from the times of earlier generations. Rural building styles were rather homogenous and had local characteristics as the history of a place or a wider region was going back to common roots which were respected and their characteristic elements forwarded to new generations. In addition to historical roots the natural environment shaped the image of villages, insofar as the terrain and climate determined the architecural scenario to a large extent.

On Thasos the dominant architectural tradition was the Macedonian building style which extends to the Epiros regions. Its primeval features originate from the Byzantine and Ottoman epoques. Builders in the old days used to migrate from the Epirotic area and bring the „Macedonian“ style elements along (cf. the article: Rural building traditions on Thassos, northern Aegean Sea). The Holy Monasteries on Mt. Athos and the town of Argyrokastro (Gjirokastra) in southern Albania still present intact ensembles of this ancient past. And when I first visited Kazaviti in 1973 also here the entire assembly of houses was still fully traditional. Sadly that situation is a remote matter of the past now with no chances to return. Most old residents regret this trend and resignate: „Pai to chorio!“ (the Village is disappearing…)

Evidently, one should postulate that „traditional“ is only what is locally representative, what is endemic. Of course, also the other regions of Europe had their authentic building styles: but what is right for Spain, for instance, should be considered wrong for Thasos, as far as style is concerned. And what has been built of concrete, can never become a genuine traditional building, neither, only because an outside fassade is been attached, of stone fixed to the concrete. Stone is a natural material: traditional is only the technique of building with stone, clay, mortar and wood. And because hardly any builder would use clay any more, the remaining samples of this technique from the old times should be preserved by all means, being irreplaceable architectural features.

That cosmetic blending with natural stone (embedded in cement) should be regarded as an alarming indication of how much the building arts of the past have deteriorated. And to what extend the aesthetic values of earlier generations have disappeared and been replaced among the people, both local and foreign, by fashionable modes when they now erect or just refurbish their buildings in „traditional“ style – with full blessing of the Poleodomia (= Planning Authority“). Obviously the modest presentation of truly traditional houses does not count anymore in the views of these people: they intend to embellish the villages instead – and by doing so destroy exactly those values which are at the heart of the Thasian ancient settlements.

The nostalgia which draws urban people to their roots in the village environment nowadays does not induce any preservation of this heritage. Instead, the village is being shaped according to how these uprooted representatives of modern society interpret village traditions. First the real thing, the historical substance is being demolished and then rebuilt „traditionally“ without any appreciation for the original, of those magnificent but humble works that had been formed by the very hands of the bygone generations.The masters of traditional building techniques remain anonymous. Every fassade with the marks of individual craftsmen tells moving stories, though: one has to keep open the senses – and the mind! Every single one of these ancient buildings in the hands of the hairs or of new owners, is an individual monument in its own right, a document of family histories, of happyness and sorrow, daily life drama and high events, the hardships of life up here in the inland villages above all, of births and deaths uncounted, hardly ever recorded. These aspects should induce nostalgia, not a dead fake stone fassade or the odd cart wheel in front of the doorstep.

A warning, out of own experience over decades, for those owners of still original Macedonian architectural monuments,for those who believe that they might get public support and access to funds for the preservation of true architectural monuments: Do not expect any assistance, any support from the Greek goverment. If it should happen, take it as an unexpected surprise. We applied for several of our pristine, truly traditional houses to be put under strict conservation order (diatiriteo). More than four years have passed and still no effective steps have been undertaken by the Ministry of Culture. In the instance of the most significant one, the former mansion (metochi) of the H. M. Esfigmenou of 1807 (later Manola), we only recently received a letter by the Byzantine Eforia Kavalas that this building is preserved as „diatiriteo“ anyway. So what? … 4 years waiting for such non-explanatory answer… Yes indeed, it is not just the missing definition of „traditional“ in the FEK of 1978 which is fatal for the vanishing of the remaining Macedonian architecure here on the island. It is rather the lacking support and non-existent initiative by those public servants, too, which are paid by tax money to do their job – not even mentioning that such undertakings require a genuine interest and a spirit of conservation.

How did true village traditions come about and why are they now discontined?

The answers take us far back into the evolution history of mankind, but can be certainly explained: The reader should imagine that over uncounted generations villages consisted of rather exclusive communal units, firmly bound inside and quite dstinctive in attidudes and cultural patterns against other such communities settling outside the local cultural realm. Builders being socially attached fully to the own community had no innovations in style on their mind, in the first place, but rather a continuation of what the forefathers presented. Certain innovations did happen, however, as well. They were adopted by the community according to how the initiator was regarded as an individual member of this communal unit and by the usefulness of the new pattern, for instance a certain buiding technique. Also it was mentioned earlier that immigrants brought new style elements and techniques along with them. The functioning of those confined rural entities continued over the ages in a dynamic manner, and the prime factor in this continuity of acceptance and maintenace of its cultural patterns was the close mutual bond in the village population. Usually, several villages shared a dynamic relationship in their traditions.

The second agent in establishing conformity within units, was the distictiveness, even hostility towards neighbouring communities which were not considered as people of common roots. Also this agonistic factor was productive in shaping distinct patterns and uniform identity in the interior of communal units…

Not surprisingly, traditions nowadays have no genuine agents anymore. In the wake of disintegration of village society and the over-powering forces of urban life styles automatically an end to traditions was set. Only the material relics of true traditions remain, there is no continuity of traditional life styles any more. So the only thing we can do is to preserve the remaining evidence of the gone by social constellaton. Never ever it will return again. Those ancient houses are irreplaceable manifestations of former village life. Any stone wall (xerothithia), any original house fassade, any fittings in the interior of houses are cultural relics that cannot be re-produced again. And therefore deserve our full estimation and preservation! Not in a museum-like scenario only, but out there in the individual houses, as much as they are compatible with present – times living conditions – at their original sites.

To summarize: Tradition should be seen on the local level, only the traditions of the own region should be considered. No one can produce traditional features, they are entirely a heritage of the past. And once again: Stone is a natural material; it’s the technique of how it is applied that counts. Never one should make the mistake to believe that one can embellish a place by destroying first any traditional structures and then re-build them, with fake niches, over-done decor, arches which do not carry any functional weight… to name some of those pseudo „traditions“ which became so fashionable. Just stop this tragic devaluation of our last remaining architectural ensembles and keep what is left of it in the old Thasian inland villages intact!

It is a major mistake to believe that foreigners would appreciate any pseudo image make up: No, I have spoken again and again with visitors to Kazaviti: they have a fine sense for authenticy and truely traditional qualities and resent any „Kitsch“. The tourists which venture to Kazaviti rather appreciate those unrestored houses which retain their original character, even as some in our possession are now covered by nylon and corrugated iron roofs. These protective materials will be quickly removed one day once there will be the financial means available for restoring them professionally, by my children Matthias and Stephanie, the legal owners of our traditional houses at Kazaviti, both architectural engeneers. Purchase is in our view the most efficient protection. And all our properties we primarily consider as valued monuments of past times, to be opened up for people having the right understanding and appreciation.

And we are asking, who ever would seriously consider a corrective make up of the entire village of Kazaviti and the other old inland villages: who will demolish and remove all the tons and tons of concrete? This massive blemish will remain, it is a brutal and lasting blow to the real beauty of these ancient villages on Thasos, right into their face. And it all goes in the name of tradition“.

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This entry was posted on Oktober 5, 2010 at 19:24 and is filed under ECOCULTURE, European Dilemma - Greek Tragedy, Kazavition.

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