The dilemma of rural architecture – part III (Greece)

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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Foreign impacts: A particular source of destructive factors has been for decades the „restorations“ by foreigners who had bought – usually for very low prices – genuine traditional village houses:

Truely well disposed were those new owners from a mostly urban and foreign environment who had shortly after the acquision no more funds at their disposal for the immediate refurbishment of their property. Because the most serious and irreparable damages were afflicted before the personal character of the respective traditional village house and the largely hidden qualities of the house were gradually recognized – if ever.

In Kazaviti I had over the decades to experince a never ending agony of disappointments when it came to the stage of renovation – by people who had assured their full consiousness of the delicate task, who had promised and even believed that they would follow good local advise, and even by people professionally qualified; they actually were the worst restorers because they carried on their mind the standards but not at all the rural technologies, ignored or even opposed the know how and qualifications of old-fashion builders…

Within a few days all the still solid and sound timbers of a centuries lasting roof were pulled down – to be replaced by commercial sawmill timbers (Swedish sprouce mainly), an immeditae target for wood worms and hardly suitable to carry the weight of a Thasian stone slate roof. The original roof construction could have lasted another century at least, if carefully checked and a few beams replaced by adequate wood salvaged from ruins whose roofs had collapsed due to negligence over many years (# 21, 22).

Of course walls constructed in stone are en vogue, and of course they are considered safe after pouring into all cavities loads of beton instead of clay. This kind of fashionable construction is called rustic – „traditional“ in full disregard – as has been pointed out in my paper just quoted – of the stone being a natural material and only the technique how it was fitted is a traditional feature. All the wellness giving elements; for instance the application of clay, had gone before even noticed.

I still make the mistake nowadays to take a positive, supporting position. Just another disappointment follows – but worse: another house is defaced, another monument of rural building tradition, of simple beauty and living qualities gone for ever. It appears too clearly that the years of no habitation/no other utilization were not as fatal as long as the roof did not leak, as compared with such make up operations.

House Samiotis in Kazaviti consists of the northern half section of a characteristic pyrgospiti – a twin tower building (# 27). Such imposing high mansions were found throughout the Macedonian style region as far as Gjirokastra in southern Albania, Epiros, the Athos and the Pelion peninsulas in Greece. All the original structural elements in these ingenious dwellings conform with the upwards trend; the fortress like character of the outer facades is matched by the lofty space and the perfect climatic properties indoors.

The contracted Albanian builders could not conform with the German owner when he suggested to lift the basement floor level considerably and to break two window holes much broader than high through the groundfloor walls. The internal hight is an asset that should have been respected and retained by all means! And broader than high window proportions are alien to Thassian houses (cf. the article: Building traditions on Thasos, northern Aegean Sea). The new squeezed in windows discontinue, rather intercut or suppress the view going up the towering walls (cf. the photographs of the fassade facing the road, # 29 – #30). Now the impression of straight up hight and the house’s general proportional extensions are spoiled – trimmed down to the image of an average village house whose window openings got out of place.

There exist secondary windows on the first floor level ( with modern, blue shutters) which were fitted during an earlier renovation some decades ago.

Attached are photographs of the monasterial mansion Manola of 1807 for comparison (# 31 -# 33): This tower house presents a fully original picture both of the windows‘ position and the plastering with lime/sand mortar. One should note the generous provision of daylight in the living quarters of this and other traditional Thassian houses, in a fully harmonious arrangement of windows in just the visually perfect distance from the protruding roof – which is feasible by the very low „Turkish“ position of the windows over the floor level as seen from inside.

On the road side the Samiotis house had a utility door with wooden shutters (glass panes were an expensive and therefore limited commodity in the old days!). on the ground floor level. This fairly large square opening – just a little higher than broad, was later filled in. And now re-opened by the new, ill-proportined window… which will be  replaced by a square window again – good news at last!

The southern half of the double house (owned by a Greek national) retained its former frontside. (The shared concrete balcony eventually should be replaced by a wooden one. And the coarse, non-authentic plaster of all external walls should be knocked off).

This example is symptomatic, it  illustrates common trends. As usual nowadays, an excessive use of cement at all parts under refurbishment was exercised. The use of clay instead is too remote an option to consider…

The use of clay in buildings nowadays deserves a few more comments: The Albanians we employ have re-erected entire house sections in stone and clay, have plastered indoor walls and fitted ground and first floors using the original slate embedded in clay (# 5 – # 7) There are different qualities to distinguish: clay that is mixed naturally with gravel-size stone fragments (such providing a mortar that resembles beton), fat clay without any or with just a few stone particles. Back at home the (middle-aged) Albanians used clay extensively, stamping barefoot a mixture of wet clay and straw in order to mix the mortar well. Within a very few years after the opening of Albania in the early 1990s this and other traditional practices were abandoned completely. And nowaday there is a general disregard, undervaluation and lack of experience that I regret deeply – as it elimits a superb building commodity having obvious health giving and aesthetic qualities (for the latter cf. the picture of our kitchen floor above, # 7). And providing unmatched elastic but solid collision in stone walls. I have witnessed how such a wall – 60 over centimeters strong – moved forward and backward in a trial that simulated an earthquake (by knocking the wall strongly by a heavy beam) without that any cracks opened. Elastic wooden stabilisators fitted horizontally into these walls act as functional counterparts in holding the building in place during earthquakes.

The dilemma in rural architecture too often begins with the imported attitude that restoration has to imply changes, that means improvements in the foreigner’s vision. Certainly a modern bathroom and a kitchen have to be fitted, but why to alter the style of the house? When I gave (better: waisted) my advise to a German builder who had even brought his own heavy machinery for making up efficiently – that means knocking out or covering up all the original substance – in his newly acquired old house, he remarked: Well then, show me how you have done your restoration once completed. I only replied that in this particular case all the renovation was already in place – apparently he did not notice any works having been done. And that fact I regard as a compliment because one should not see any traces – except for the modern household facilities‘ part.

I feel sorry for the majority of holiday makers seeking a genuine village accomodation and ending up in a pseudo-rustic village house where the exterior was made up to look traditional and the rooms were stripped of any genuine features of the family who had lived there before: How can such instant quarters convey any true village atmosphere, any sense of real tradition – any coming true of nostalgic feelings that accumulate in the milieu most citizens live nowdays: in „our“ modern cities…

Failure of government guidance, support and supervision: I have to remind the reader that all this worrying development is being supported, even directed by the Greek planning authorities and (believe it!) by the Ministry of Tourism. For instance, there exists a law of 1987 that prohibits any use of traditional houses for touristic rentals, if the room hight is less than 2,40 meters in any part of the house. Not one single traditional house in Kazaviti, not even the tower house Samiotis referred to above fulfills that condition for all its rooms. States the architect of the Hellenic Organisation of Tourism at Komotini, the administative center (Periferia) for Kazaviti on Thasos Island: …then you have to raise the roof. With immense costs and the effect that the house would lose its originality. On top of all that nonsense: In the district of Volos (Nomos of Magnesia that includes the Pelion villages) the same state tourism authority grants permission for use as guest houses to any old house regardless of the ceiling hight: same country, same law, but different public servants. The lady in charge of building preservation at Komotini is the sister of the architect whom I sent the Open Letter quoted above…

Should’nt we expect – regardless of personal motives – also on Thassos the authorities to support private initiatives in protecting village architectural heritage? Initiatives badly needed in a derelict economic situation? Incentives which attract a valued clientel of holiday guests contributing much sound benefit for all the community? Should’nt the subsidies granted by the European Union under the LEADER + Programme not have also in Greece the Union-wide declared economic and cultural scope of preserving and activating these original village quarters? Believe it or not, it remains a fact regardless: At Kazaviti village, LEADER + subsidies were allocated with full knowledge of the Planning Authority to knocking down a genuine traditional family house and to erecting instead a „rustic“ guesthouse that I prefer not to comment upon. It was built wall to wall of the twin tower house discussed earlier – of the southern section which was still intact as pointed out above. So it appears drastically clear that here on Thassos one has to prevent the Greek state from destroying what actually is in her institutional duty to safeguard.

In my article for „Thasion Gi“ of 2008 I have referred to our application for registered preservation status for four selected significant original mansions in our possession at Kazaviti six years ago. So far no progress, only an annual letter of acknowledgement of our application. And year by year we have to raise the costs for keeping these houses upright…expenditures to be earnt from sources other than the rental benefit of two other houses already renovated, but having not in all rooms a ceiling hight as officially required (see above). I am 1,82 m tall and I have lived for more than ten years in the house Karavousi/ Drosopoulou without ever noticing a low ceiling. In the main living rooms there are no ceilings anyway, the open view extends above the beams to the lofty and beautiful roof construction. Shall we destroy all that?… NEVER!

Equally a dilemma is the maintenance of the cultivated rural environment of traditional villages like Kazaviti. It must have taken centuries after centuries to compose the beautiful terrasses for fields, gardens, vineyards and orchards. and to erect the supporting stone walls. A wealth of local crops, grapes and fruit has vanished since the villagers abandoned the land. It was under cultivation for more than a thousand years at Kazaviti. Also the local breeds of domestic animals have disappeared.

Newcomers to Thassos imported foreign plants from nurseries and garden centers. Together with all the clicheés of suburban lifestyle – to make the village look more beautiful – as they visualise the village sceney (# 36 – # 38): Sadly these people have no awareness of the richness of original village flowers, shrubs and trees. And operate an electrical fountain in their front garden in order to feel at home.

It demonstrates the same mentality, the same obsession of foreigners who do not appreciate living garden hedges of wild roses, broom, laurel, pomegrants, mulberry trees and aromatic herbs , and insist in wire fencing instead, even of properties that are not their own – and cut off the rose bushes and shrubs along the when nobody is around to stop them (# 34, 35). The walls of their yard, entire houses are covered by a predominant carpet of Virginian creepers, a American native that is alien to any traditional Greek village (# 36). At least the outreaching vines conceal much of the out of place architecture of their premises…I cannot say what we should prefer or rather detest more. Both aspects offend the consciousness of my immagination. As local people call me „Τα μάτια του χωριού – the eyes of the village, I can’t turn the view away. However, what I observe matters not just to me, as we live in a sensitive small multi-national community with evident social obligations, goals and rules – in a historical village whose heritage we now are responsible for and got to defend, to preserve.

And the local population? Most indigenous families moved in the 1950s to the former winter settlement of Kalyves near the coast, now called Prinos. Kazaviti was still regarded The Village (Το Χωριό), but too little awareness of responsibility for the preservation of the family houses existed; Kazaviti was largely abandoned and a more comfortable life after generations of simple subsistence in the old houses, occupied the people’s mind. I have to point out that the majority of houses at Kazaviti had only one or two living rooms upstairs for a total of up to a dozen or even more persons. The ground floor was reserved for animals and storage of food, olive oil, wine/zipouro and fire wood.

With the rubble and derelict house hold items left in abandoned houses also the old family documents were thrown out and burnt, when a property was refurbished. Fortunately, we arrived in time to safe entire collections of historic letters dating back to the mid 19th century, as well as many magnificent photographs (# 25). Part of the letters has been studied and published by the philologists Dimitrios and Eleni Theodoridis (letters of the Zografou family, in the annual periodical „Thassitika“ of 2009). Only after having salvaged the past of Kazaviti that way we felt comfortable in accepting real and rightful ownership of historical buildings already purchased (cf. my remarks in the first paragraph in the Open Letter above).

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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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