15 June, 2010

The white measles

Buildings in the Aegean countryside

By Thanos Stasinopoulos

Greek version

Sailing along the southern coast of Mykonos a few years ago, I had a big surprise: the entire island, from the east end to the west, seemed like it had measles -only the pimples were white! Scattered 'traditional' villas (I guess all approved by the adamant planning authorities) create a new large-scale setting on the hills of the famous island, which would be envied by artists of large installations like Christo.

Mykonos is just one example. All the popular islands have more or less the same 'white measles'. The disease is found in the Greek mainland too, but on the dry islands is more noticeable because the bare landscape hides 'pimples' less. The cause of the problem is twofold, building in the countryside and the obsession with white. Both emanate from the past. Let's have a closer look on them.

Legislation on countryside buildings was first enacted in 1928 for plots larger than one acre, a threshold kept in all subsequent legislation. Such buildings were scarce for decades, until the "rapid development" era in Greece. Then country homes started springing up on the slopes and coasts of the country, especially those close to tourist magnets. The transformation of the Greek countryside was too rapid to allow for a legislative response.

In areas with strong architectural personality from the past, the state control focuses on the appearance of individual buildings. The nostalgic spirit of the legislature has overlooked a key feature of the traditional architecture of the Aegean, the dense village fabric. Thus thousands of individual buildings, each one built on one acre, spread freely in areas considered as our 'diamonds', most typically on touristic islands.

Country buildings are certainly not something new: farm cottages, stables, warehouses, and various others, have existed on the islands for centuries. For example, we find many rural 'cells' in Tinos' countryside, just like on other islands under various names. With the exception of monasteries and windmills, those buildings are typically small and one-storey. Furthermore, they are built of stone, often dry stone like the retaining walls of the stepped fields next to them. Humbleness and local materials help to blend them with the landscape. The ones that come out strongly outside villages are scarce, most of them of religious nature like the white chapels of Prophet Elijah on some peaks.

In the same surroundings, more and more two-storey villas of 200+ square metres spring up today, scattered right and left at a distance from each other. Perhaps each one has all the necessary 'neo-traditional' decorative features required by planning and tourist councils, but as a whole they create a landscape that has little to do with tradition. Adding insult to injury, the new invaders highlight the impact of their volume in the landscape being dressed in white.

We come now to the second attribute of the 'measles', the white colour. Various things have been written and said about the domination of white, like for instance an informative article by Michael Michelis in the newspaper 'Apopsi' (View) of Syros in 2008. Dimitris Filippidis in an interview points to something obvious but forgotten: "When the Aegean was crammed with pirates, the inhabitants of the islands ... very logically, left their houses unpainted, at the colour of stone. To paint them was a stupidity at that era." The visual integration in the landscape was a means of survival then, before becoming an aesthetic value later.

The whitewashing that was imposed by Metaxas authoritarian regime in the 1930's was motivated by the epidemics of the time, rather than a blue-and-white aesthetics like the one that spurred the military dictatorship of 1967 to ban the traditional use of various dyes. We read in an ordinance sent by the 'Administration of Cyclades' to local police departments and mayors in 1972:

"Among other restrictions on construction, it is forbidden to apply many hues on the house facades, and it has been decided that the dominating colour of houses should be white ... which is a particular characteristic of the Cyclades islands and generally a subconscious duty of all inhabitants ... so as to achieve full uniformity in harmony with the peculiar colour of Cyclades islands." (Image 1)



Image 1: An ordinance for ethnic bleaching; the document was discovered in Serifos, at an exhibition about the military regime period a few years ago.


Mandatory bleaching continued after the dictatorship. For example, we read in a 2002 decree about building regulations in Kythnos: "In case of painted facades, the dominant colour is white". Similarly, in a 2002 decree about Folegandro: "The colour on the external surfaces of the building are made of white water-based colours or limewash according to the norms of the region". However, those who have been in island corners like Oia, Sigri or Kalymnos before the introduction of swimming pools, have witnessed the wide use of colours. Another 2002 decree about country buildings on several islands acknowledges that in some of those "beyond the white, more colours can be used like in old buildings of the island, such as ochre, gray, indigo, red".

The origin of compulsory white and how it has evolved until today is an interesting research topic far beyond this short article. The issue here is different: it is the visual impact of contemporary countryside buildings on the islands, especially the white ones, which undermine the natural charm that generated them in the first place.

The aesthetics of the landscape is particularly important in a country where natural environment and old architecture are valuable national assets. So a series of ordinances such as those mentioned above, seek to preserve the architectural past, imposing detailed design rules for new buildings, especially in traditional villages. In those, the white colour has a unifying effect that emphasizes the remarkable plasticity of parts and wholes found in pearls like the main village of Folegandro or Serifos. But what sort of traditional quality has an island landscape dotted with white villas, even if every one of them meets the strict stylistic requirements?

The problem is well known, so the minimum plot size required for country buildings has already been increased in certain areas. But even assuming that new constructions in the hills and valleys of the Aegean are fully banned, the existing ones cause a problem that calls for a solution. The beautiful girl has acne and needs some makeup.

In the old times that we selectively yearn for, the use of local stone was providing the hue of the surrounding area to the construction, making its presence more discreet. Koundouros of Kea portrays such an example, a contemporary one in fact: the settlement that has grown in recent years seems small from a distance, but coming closer you realize that it is actually much bigger. The secret is in colour: stone is the dominant material in the majority of new buildings, merging the man-made volumes with the natural landscape (Image 2).

Of course it is not easy to wrap thousands of buildings with stone. But could we reduce the visual impact of the white pimples, matching the colouring of their plaster to the surrounding ground? That question led to a simple experiment: In some photos from Tinos, country buildings were recoloured in the hue of their surroundings, preserving the unifying white of the villages. The outcome appears in the samples below (Images 3-5). You'll probably agree that the colour change was enough to eliminate the white spots from the general view, and also to lessen whiteness in close-ups.

It appears that using the use of the proper colour (which certainly is not sparkling white) may soften the presence of countryside buildings, restoring the Aegean landscape closer to its original look. The regulations that dictate colours already exist, so we only need to amend the wording to something like: "In countryside residential and commercial buildings, the colouring of the facades follows the hue of natural soil in the plot. Existing buildings are required to comply to this within three years ..."

Unless we consider the 'white measles' of the Aegean landscape as an inherent feature of tradition!

Thanos N. Stasinopoulos
Dr. Architect Engineer NTUA, AAGradDipl.





Image 2: Koundouros Keas: The total volume of stone buildings appears much smaller than reality. The settlement becomes part of the landscape.



Image 3: View of Tinos from the sea: white volumes scattered in the countryside disappear if they are coloured with earthy colours. The white villages (Triantaros & Dio Khoria) stand out.



Image 4: Holiday villas in Tinos.



Image 5: General view of Tinos with and without visible structures in the countryside.


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