Monday, April 25, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: 1910s Greece

Revealing structural material to the viewer is central to a tradition of architecture that begins with Viollet-le-Duc’s structural rationalism and culminates to contemporary High Tech. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillion (1929) marks the ultimate aesthetization of the steel beam, which extends into Mies' invention of the American skyscraper in the 1950s (Seagram Building, etc.) As far as I know, few studies have looked at the early use of steel beams in vernacular architecture. In this post, I will explore a phenomenon from rural Greece that illustrates the porosity of vernacular architecture. This phenomenon is striking for the incorporation of modernist aesthetics before those aesthetics were formally canonized. If you look closely at the picture on the left, you will note a gray steel beam between the stone pillaster and wall. Just above the left corner of the pilaster capital, you can also see a rivet within the channel of the beam. The picture is taken from the Old Public School of Arachova in Central Greece. In the next post, I will discuss a contemporary phenomenon in the vernacular experiments of Philadelphia row houses.

While mapping villages in Greece last summer, I became aware of one consistent feature in the elevation of public buildings from the 1910s to 1930s. Many buildings seem to have incorporated steel lintels and, more importantly, made this incorporation a visible component of their exterior elevations. An ubiquitous number of I-beams are integrated in the stone architecture of Greece. They are not part of a steel structural system, but rather assist in spanning large opening within a traditional stone idiom. Whereas wooden lintels or arches continued to serve the needs of domestic architecture, buildings like new schools or shops benefited from larger opening that could only be facilitated by steel. A closer inspection of the masonry openings in the school (left) shows that even when the openings featured flat arches, they were structurally assisted by hidden steel elements.

This material shift is particularly evident in rural schools built by Eleutherios Venizelos in the 1910s. They are typically built in finely cut local stone that suggests that the building grew out of the regional terrain. The stone is bluish-gray and finely dressed. A unified surface of ashlar blocks contrasts with the taut window surfaces and the steel lintels. Although they blend with existing vernacular traditions, these public buildings stand out. I would not go as far as to argue that they are iconic, but we must remember that mandatory elementary education was instituted by Venizelos in 1911 by constitutional reform. Since every Greek child was suddenly obliged to attend school, the government needed to provide requisite spaces. The schools are utilitarian in nature and employed local craftsmen. As architectural works, however, they communicate a whole set of new ideas to the local agrarian population. On the West facade of the Arachova School, we see two-story industrial windows that facilitated large luminous spaces that wooden could not have never facilitated. The tension between old and new is very interesting and an important expression of the dialectics between public education and local society or between International Style modernism and local solutions.

Looking at the Main Streets of many towns like Arachova, we also note the steel technology was also used to create large shop windows and expand the commercial character of the central thoroughfare. The steel beams here assist in dissolving the wall between seller and buyer and bring the transparency of Walter Benjamin's arcades to the mountain town. The picture on the left might be hard to decipher; it shows a shop entrance. Local building styles, like the segmented arch (stone interspersed with brick) or the ashlar pilaster (with rusticated surfacing), meet the new steel beam. In terms of architectural development, the steel beam is simply taking the place of a wooden lintel. But its visible manifestation on the exterior seeks to mark the muscular optimism of industrial modernity.

Some of the Venizelos schools have highly rusticated walls, a phenomenon that warrants its own study. Although vernacular architecture may be generally considered "rustic," the stylized rustication of 1890s-1920s public buildings in Greece originates from academic sources (Renaissance models, like Palazzo Medici). The Greek train stations were designed by French engineers in the 1890s and feature rusticated masonry of this sort, as do engineering projects like bridges and walls. A similar rustication was used in suburban villas (Kephisia, Patras, etc.) replicating European picturesque prototypes. Whether used in private or public works, rustication seems to trickle into 19th-century Greece via a European channels.

We must return to the steel trabeation of Venizelos' schools. With their larger spans, the steel beams allow for large window openings and effectively “modernize” the educational experience of teachers and students. School houses before the 1920s were exactly that, houses. A recently renovated example of a school house with a hybrid steel-stone construction is found in the prosperous town of Arachova near Delphi (above). Although I have not done an exhaustive study of this modernist incorporation in vernacular Greek architecture, it is in Central Greek that I first became aware of it. This is important because, unlike the Peloponnese, the bulk of mainland Greece did not join Greece until Venizelos' times (cf. Greco-Turkish War of 1897)

One instance where the publicly visible steel beam entered domestic architecture is the house of Angelos Sikelianos and Eva Palmer-Sikelianos (left). The house, which was built by funds raised by Palmer in the U.S., became the anchor of the Delphic Movement. Recently renovated, the house is now a museum and contains an incredible collection of ephemera from the Delphic Festival, including costumes woven by Palmer for Prometheus Bound. One problem with renovations is that you can not tell how aggressive they may have been. The balcony on the second floor is supported by steel beams. Greek restorers have tended to strip facades down to the bare stone. So, I’m not 100% sure whether the steel beam might have been covered (like the rest of the façade) with stucco.

At any rate, the incorporation of modernist elements in vernacular architecture raises a host of interesting questions regarding the international relationship between new materials, new ideas and channels of transmission.

1 comment:

Serge said...

This steel beam might just be one of the several factors why these buildings still stand strong today.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States