Monday, 9 December 2013

Decorating to Suit the Architecture

Decorating to Suit the Architecture

Built of what came to Hand

Internal walls of our house

Having been busy pulling many of the structures of the house apart and putting them together again, what we did know quite well by now was something about the materials used in its building. The construction was beautifully efficient. Totally insulated by stone, earth, wood and reeds, our house had withstood earthquakes, and could stand for another hundred years if lived in and cared for. Moreover, being made with natural materials when abandoned it would quickly deteriorate and become just a pile of stones and timber in a field. Modern cement houses unfortunately don’t disintegrate as beautifully, and an abandoned cement factory, showroom or workroom will be an eyesore for many years.

Some old Greek towns

Walking through Myrina

I was aware that here in Lemnos one did not find the white houses with blue shutters except where someone was trying to attract tourists. No, we were in Northern Greece, though it seems as hard for tourists to understand this as it is for them to understand that Greece is not hot all year and that there can be snow in winter. 

In the north, up in mountainous areas you find houses built like Swiss Chalets. Of course, houses were once built of what came to had, wood on the wooded mountains, rocks on our island. Thus, most homes on the island, before cement homes became so prevalent, were built of stone with clay tiled roofs. 

Chalet in Metsovo

Julia Klimi, At Home in Greece (Thames and Hudson,) Julia Klimi gained access to thirty-five private homes and has captured the very Greek essence of each, though each is very different.

The Northern Aegean?
As I’ve indicated, finding pictures that could guide the decoration of a traditional northern Greek country house was difficult. The reason for this I found was that since liberation from Turkish rule in the nineteenth century what had often occurred was that only something that could be identified as ‘Greek’ – limited to Byzantine or Classical Greek – was deemed authentic. This means that often, though a fabulous mix existed before, the idea of a mix was discarded with the rise of a proud Greek nationalism, and so often what was Venetian or Ottoman hasn’t been well preserved. Even in Myrina the biggest architectural site, the Venetian castle, is hardly conserved, and some old Ottoman wells have been demolished while a mosque has been left to deteriorate. Nevertheless there are some traces to be discovered.

A well-made stone house

Our stone house with painted stucco

Vanishing Greece (Conran Octopus, 1991). This is a photographic essay on Greece by Clay Perry introduced by Patrick Leigh Fermor who, like Clay Perry, had conducted a passionate love affair with Greece over many years. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, another philhellene, has written the text. All three are aware that by the end of the twentieth century the landscape and the traditional way of life may have changed irrevocably.

Architectural details that linger
Picture of internal courtyard
Greek houses, in the 6th and 5th century BCE, were made up of two or three rooms, built around an open air courtyard, built of stone, wood, or clay bricks. Larger homes might also have a kitchen, a room for bathing, a men's dining room, and perhaps a woman's sitting area. 
Although the Greek women were allowed to leave their homes for only short periods of time, they could enjoy the open air, in the privacy of their courtyard. Much of ancient Greek family life centered around the courtyard. The ancient Greeks loved stories and fables. One favorite family activity was to gather in the courtyard to hear these stories, told by the mother or father. In their courtyard, Greek women might relax, chat, and sew. Most meals were enjoyed in the courtyard. Greek cooking equipment was small and light and could easily be set up there. On bright, sunny days, the women probably sheltered under a covered area of their courtyard, as the ancient Greeks believed a pale complexion was a sign of beauty.

I think our house shows signs of some of the older building styles. 

Inside is a vestibule with a balcony above, and two internal windows looking down into this inner well.

See Also‎
by Mandy Barrow - in 36 Google+ circles
Men and women lived in different parts of the house. Women had the back and upstairs part. Most houses in Ancient Greek towns were built from stone or clay.

Doing it the Lemian Way

As we couldn’t consult with any of George and Ephterpi’s generation, all I could do, as I’ve mentioned, was to try to put myself in grandmother Ephterpi’s shoes. I played with the idea that the passions and energies of past generations remain imprinted on a house. It was this, and the familiarity of living there ourselves for some years, that had given me the clues to find the well and later the chimney. Yet mysteries remained. Often we could only speculate about the use of some of the rooms. For instance, why were all four walls of the room just inside the front door two feet thick? Was it the outline of some original shepherd’s hut, and perhaps the future house grew around that first structure? Or was this room built at the same time as the rest of the house, and made so solid because it was to be a storeroom? 

I wanted the decoration to hint at all of the possible architectural history, yet I also wanted the local family history to have pride of place. Looking for inspiration I found it in some magazines but also in some museums, particularly the Benaki Museum in Athens. (This museum is yet another instance of how Greeks from Alexandria came back and enriched their native land.) In it you can find preserved some of the internal structures from old Greek houses, with wonderful  painted freezes and carved woodwork.

It was my friend Ourania who encouraged me to emphasis the island history and told me that no way should I repaint the shutters a light blue but that I should stick with the traditional Lemian maroon (the colour that they had been and that we could identify under the flaked paint.)

And Inspiration from Books
Dimitris Philippides, Greek Design and Decoration: Three Centuries of Architectural Style (Melissa Publishing House, 1999). The author writes with great authority about Greek design in this book. It was one I could use with confidence when planning the interior decoration of our house.

Eleni Gage, North of Ithaka (Bantam Press, 2004). Eleni is the daughter of Nicholas Gage who wrote a book called Eleni about his mother. This book was later made into a film and it told of her imprisonment and execution during the Greek Civil War. Eleni, the grandaughter, goes back to rebuild the family house. This is the book that most echoes our building adventures. She also wanted to preserve and highlight the history of her family.

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