Friday, August 08, 2014

Deserted Greek Villages

Paul Oliver, a foundational figures in the study of vernacular architecture globally, wrote in 1974, "the shelter of Greece has claimed more attention than that of any other country." In 1964, Bernard Rudofsky's exhibition "Architecture Without Architects" at the Museum of Modern Art ushered vernacular architecture into the American mainstream. Greek houses were highly represented in the exhibition. Rudofsky discovered Greek villages in 1929 for his PhD thesis on the vaulted houses of Santorini. The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age for the study of the Greek house leading to the major publication of Greek Traditional Architecture in 1983.

The Greek house played a prominent role in modernism because of its simplicity and material honesty. But without Le Corbusier, Brutalism, minimalism and the modernist orientation towards essential aesthetic paradigms, the Greek house loses its prominence. Postmodernism has ridiculed the reductivism of this modernist lens and, in the process, has pushed the study of vernacular architecture to the margins.

During the 1990s, when the Greek economic bubble started to get inflated, Greeks re-invested into their rural origins. Cheap labor -- unskilled Albanian stonemasons -- fueled and explosion of reconstruction projects. This was the decade of the Morea Project, when we documented the rapid destruction of the vernacular fabric under this rural "renewal" manifest in millions of Albanian walls made out of indigenous stone and concrete mortar. Interviewing villagers in the 1990s, we would ask "who has rebuilt your traditional house?" and they would say "northern Epirots," the euphemism for new emigrating Albanians. The stone-masonry traditions of continental Greece have deep roots in Epirus, who made up itinerant groups during the mid-18th-century agricultural boom that created most of the villages that we see today.

Now that the boom has busted, the Greek villages are becoming increasingly re-abandoned. The mad craze of rebuilding has slowed down. A new property tax is beginning to penalize real estate ownership. Abandoned at two previous economic crisis 1890s, 1960s, the Greek villages the rate of abandonment is evident again. Of course, many Athenians are returning to villages and rediscovering traditional ways of agriculture and economic independence, but they are not investing in architecture. From the perspective of historic preservation, a recession has positive effects in warding unchecked development.

A short season of fieldwork this summer made me realize that the preservation and documentation of Greek villages is under a new moment of crisis. Dwindling archaeological resources are applied to the touristically profitable and nationally sacred ancient sites, leaving the early modern village in further disarray. As archaeologists, we are well equipped in methods of studying deserted landscapes. We have developed surveying tools (photogrammetry, Google Earth, drones, etc.) to create a record. This will be invaluable to future scholars. A research agenda focused on deserted villages, moreover, will force us to confront heady ideological issues, such as the anxieties of devaluation. At the height of its 1960s abandonment, certain sections of the southeastern Peloponnese were acquired cheaply by German philhellenes. Something similar is happening in Spain this year, where British investors are buying up deserted houses. See, for instance, "Spain: Deserted Medieval Villages Available 'Free'" (BBC, Mar. 10, 2014). Studying deserted villages helps us think through moments of crisis facilitated by political or economic conflict. Asia Minor and Cappadocia are full of villages forcefully deserted by the expulsion of the Greek population in 1923. Once again, note how British tourists intersect with that heritage, in "Turkey's Religious Ghost Town" (BBC Travel, Aug. 5, 2014). Those deserted Greek villages have seen the most interesting Greek-Turkish collaborations in cultural heritage. The experiences of Detroit and "ruin porn" have also pushed forward the conversation over the pitfalls of aestheticizing someone else's real estate pain.

Without modernism's primitivist fantasy, the Greek house has lost its popular appeal. The Greek house continues to sell itself iconically, as a place form which to experience the Mediterranean's triple S's (sex, sun, sea). The brand was created as a national export by the National Organization of Tourism in the 1960s and it continues to replicate itself. Greek houses continue to be touristically marketed and consumed forming an important component of the economy. But the cultural capital expended is built on notions half a century old. Tourism is still riding on the golden age of  Greek vernacular architecture studies. I think that the time has come to revisit the Greek house though an archaeological rather than an architectural lens. A golden age of Greek vernacular studies might be in the horizon. We must de-essentialize the Greek house as a beautiful topos of man's coexistence with pure nature. Rather, we should essentialize it (for better or for worse) with an acute perspective of decomposition, abjection, loss.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States