Even in the old world, everyday buildings define culture and character

The history of architecture is largely the history of “formal” architecture — that is, of buildings and monuments commissioned by ruling elites, from kings and pontiffs to mayors and municipal commissions. Yet, as the U.S. home improvement market races toward a record $204 billion in 2003 sales, as projected by the Home Improvement Research Institute, it is worth remembering that buildings are not fashioned by licensed architects alone.

Indeed, the true character of any city or town rests largely on the vernacular traditions of its ordinary, often architecturally untrained citizens, says Constantine E. Michaelides, FAIA, emeritus dean and professor of the School of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. And what is true of, say, New York brownstones, Chicago row houses and Los Angeles bungalows is no less true of the ancient world’s distinctive urban fabric.

Churches and chapels comprise the Aegean Islands’ most distinctive architectural forms. The Paraportiani Church of Mykonos is among the most famous of those that dot the islands.

“Formal and vernacular architecture often evolve within the same space, mutually informing rather than antagonizing one another,” Michaelides says in The Aegean Crucible: Tracing Vernacular Architecture in Post-Byzantine Centuries, his forthcoming, lavishly illustrated “scholarly guide-book” to the Aegean Islands. Indeed, Michaelides notes that it is often the conversation between the formal and vernacular that most clearly “reveals the everyday life and aspirations of the people who produce and inhabit them.”

For example, the large 6th-century Panayia Katapoliani in Paros, the Aegean’s most significant early-Christian basilica, was originally inspired by the architecture of Imperial Constantinople. Yet after the empire’s fall in 1453, maintenance and repairs to the building — notably those following a devastating 1733 earthquake — were conducted using local methods and materials.

“This gradually infused Panayia Katapoliani with the manners and techniques of post-Byzantine Aegean vernacular architecture,” Michaelides observes. “The layers of whitewash on the exterior walls, the erection of three typically Cycladic bell towers on the west wall and other elements of the Aegean architectural vocabulary dominated the church’s architecture from the 18th century on.”

Such vernacular infusions, like medieval “additions” to the Acropolis in Athens and the Roman amphitheater in Arles, were largely destroyed by 19th-century restorers who, Michaelides, says, “nostalgically romanticized formal architecture while implicitly dismissing the vernacular.” Still, he notes, such anecdotes underscore the ingenuity and adaptibility of “architecture without architects.”

Mild weather, short trees, falling empires

A native of Athens, Michaelides previously authored the first in-depth survey of Aegean vernacular architectural, Hydra: A Greek Island Town, Its Growth and Form (1967). In The Aegean Crucible, which will be published in November 2003 by Delos Press, he points out that many of the Aegean’s most distinctive building types were the result of anonymous locals adapting materials-at-hand to specific climatic, cultural and political needs.

Fortress-like settlements known as kastra, for example, arose during a long period of war and piracy that began with the Crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople in 1204. Smaller islands, which couldn’t afford to build freestanding fortifications, began grouping together small, blocky monochoro — or “single space” — houses along solid, defensible perimeter walls that opened only at a limited number of controlled gates.

Photos by Constantine E. Michaelides
Two courtyard views of the Antiparos Kastro.

“For all practical purposes, a small town thus became a collective fortification,” Michaelides explains, “a compact monolithic structure much like an extended single building.”

Individual monochora featured narrow, battlement-like windows along with high ceilings and thick masonry walls that, stuccoed and whitewashed, provided insulation in both summer and winter. The structure’s small size — which seldom exceeded 15 feet in the narrower direction — reflected the poor spanning capacity of local wood but also provided much needed stability in a geologically active, earthquake-prone region. Meanwhile, its simple rectangular shape and consistent 2:1 proportions allowed for continual addition to the larger kastro.

In the early 19th century, as the collapse of Mediterranean piracy (both Christian and Moslem) reduced the need for military defense, the local building vocabulary increasingly included the courtyard house, a larger, multi-roomed structure whose namesake open space could be used for dining or, in mild weather, sleeping. (The form, which dates back to antiquity, also spoke to the re-discovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture and the rise of Greek nationalism and independence.)

Even Aegean churches and chapels — the region’s most defining structures, thousands of which dot the landscape — generally originated not as institutional commissions, but as private acts of faith.

And like the kastro and monochoro, these diminutive, seemingly ageless single-nave structures also exhibit some canny adaptive behaviors. For example, Michaelides points out that under Ottoman rule, “families expressing their religious devotions by building small chapels were less likely to provoke Turkish rapacity than communities building sizable, richly appointed churches.”

A limited palette of perpetual change

Michaelides notes that one of the key characteristics of vernacular architecture is its limited palette of building types. Indeed, he says, “a limited building palette, along with a firm architectural attachment to human scale, is at the heart of the visual unity of the Aegean settlements.”

Still, modern suburban Home Depot devotees would do well to study the creative variety Aegean builders have achieved with that palette, particularly through such secondary architectural elements as doors, windows, stairways, courtyard gates and bell towers. These elements — constantly added and subtracted, personalized and adjusted — go to the very heart of a living vernacular, which is also defined, somewhat paradoxically, by its state of almost perpetual change.

“Vernacular architecture is never finished, in the sense that a building like the Parthenon is finished,” Michaelides says. “New rooms, new structures, even new neighborhoods can be added without disturbing the original composition because the spirit of that composition is one of continual growth and evolution. The essential form survives.”

What must be preserved, he adds, is a critical mass of component parts, of local elements and vocabulary.

“Preservation is not only about the formal, individual masterwork,” Michaelides concludes. “It is also about the distinctive architectural fabric of a city or town. Buildings that are not necessarily unique may collectively form a unique urban heritage from which springs a particular way of life.”