The house as a piece of territory. A narrative of design connected with life, space and place.

Text & Visual | Maria Vidali

 

This narrative unfolds in Kampos, a village on the Greek island of Tinos. Tinos is an Aegean island with a long history of agriculture. In Kampos, one of the oldest farming villages of Tinos, boundaries created by low stone walls and alleyways primarily define the farming landscape that permeates village life and its structure. The landscape appears semi-artificial, given the construction of countless rows of cultivation ridges and terraces. 

Village society in Kampos is consisted primarily of family units. Some of the members of the family work in the family fields caring for the family wealth, economy and social status, while at the same time they constitute the village community, which acts also as a bigger family body.

Narrative and stories bind and connect small communities together, while narratives can allow different versions of reality to emerge. Narrative forms can become tools for understanding and revealing the truth of these societies in relation to architecture and the environment. Through narrative I will  explore the unique connection of the interior design of a house in Kampos  connected with  daily life, culture and environment. These interior spaces still retain a quality of life closely connected with nature, architecture, the private and public realm, all by exhibiting features that can be found in a contemporary way of living.

 

Excerpt from  the Narrative: A house as a piece of territory

Friday the eighth of May. In the afternoon, a light spring northeast wind blew through the small gates of the tight cluster of the village houses. The bell of Holy Trinity church rang four times 4 o’ clock. This was also the first call after the midday break and the first reminder before the single ringing at 4:30 for the Rosario, the prayer the women of the village dedicate to Virgin Mary during the month of May. The village was silent, while the natural landscape at the outskirts of the village overwhelmed with the scent of the pollen and the colors of spring. The fields were yellow, green and red, and the trees were covered with the early summer fruits that had yet to ripen, while close to the edge of the village, the gardens were iridescent with the new zucchinis, aubergines and early tomatoes.

Only my footsteps were heard on the main village street. During walking, the dense structure of the village revealed a strong sense of economy of space, also a sense of equality of space, since even if every house was different, reflecting most of the times the wealth/social status of its owner, at the same time it looked as almost every house occupied the same amount of space. Also every house in the village had storage areas where food products were stored, following possibly, I thought,  the order and hierarchy of the house (oikos), and law (nomos): the economy (oiko-nomia) of the house.

Soon I reached the small square at the side of the street and immediately turned left, passing by the most remote part of the village where the doors of the houses were closed since last summer and the cellars looked forlorn and empty. I passed under the old vaulted archway and left the old stables on her left and the beautiful old and luxurious house of Filipoussis family, where the wild artichokes and fig trees had grown so big that they covered most of the garden.

I could now see Eleni’s white limestone steps that were leading to the doorway with the wooden door open. This doorway was located opposite the brown stone surface of the village square. The square radiated heat this time of the day. From about thirty meters away, I could hear her speaking on the phone.

I walked up to Eleni’s doorstep. Dried tomatoes were still hanging from the pergola underneath the old arbor. I passed the ribbon that hung by the door to catch flies and left sweets on the table.  

“I brought you sweets from the capital!” I shouted as I was stepping into the kitchen.

“God bless you, Foteini. Welcome. Have a seat and I will prepare coffee, after I bring some sugar from the catoghi” she said rushing to hug me, kiss me and step down to the catoghi.

Looking at her stepping down I realised that her house, as most of the traditional houses of the village was divided into two parts. The first level of the house, the basement, had to do with the storage of food, and also with the process of making the earth’s products into food. The basement was actually divided into two parts, the one facing the street, was called kiela. Animals often occupied this. The second part of the basement was called catoghi and was divided by an arched wall – creating in that way two spaces, one used as a cellar and the other as a storage space full of large jars filled with grain, wine and figs. This was the area of the house which was closest  ground level and farming life. It was actually the darkest part of the house where earth’s products and food are preserved. This lower part of the house looked as it belonged more to the cycles of nature, while the upper part brought the cycle of nature and the cycle of human life into coexistence.

 

Eleni returned with a vessel full of sugar. Chatting and spending time with Eleni in the kitchen,  small and sunless, with a fireplace at one corner for food preparation and cooking, I was aware that I was not a foreigner to her. Soon I also realised that the first floor of the house, the main living space had the living/dining room as the centre of the living space of the house and was always well-lit. This was actually the space where the family met for festivals and celebrations –  in this room at the long past the silk worms would be nurtured for the production of silk – a task traditionally undertaken by the woman. The other rooms surround the living room. The bedrooms were small and dark since another stage of the silk production used to take place over the cane ceiling

 

Before we start to unfold our life stories that kept us for so many years apart, we heard someone calling her from the street. It was her friend, Antonia, who came in with a big bowl of honey. Antonia’s husband, Marcos, was the best beekeeper of the whole island and his fame had reached Athens and the Peloponnese. I left the two women in the kitchen and I started exploring the house.

The zones of the house was defined through light and dark areas also – the areas where something was made to appear through a regenerative process, a metamorphosis. Thus I visited the dark basement where the grain, oil and wine were stored, dead from the primary life that earth gave them, transformed into another form and then I moved again to the less dark kitchen where earth-products would become food, and from there to the dark bedrooms where the silk-worms at the past would undergo their metamorphosis. 

 

The bell tower just beside the entranceway to the house rang 5 o’clock. Stratis, Eleni’s husband arrived at the steps coming up to his home.  Their little house in the village was located on the side of Holy Trinity’s church, against the north wall, next to the big cypress trees and looking over the small square, where the girls usually sit around and chat. He took a deep breath and, after resting the heavy load on his back, he started to climb up the steps. He waved at me. He left his knapsack on the doorstep and stood in the small corridor between the living room and the kitchen.

I started thinking what is the role of the woman and of the man in this dense village structure, how this can be connected with those of Hestia and Hermes as Vernant explained in my last reading that morning.  Oikos (house), according to Vernant has both a family and territorial meaning- it represented a strong bond with the city since the right to own land belonging to ‘the city’ is the privilege and right of the ‘native’ citizens only – on the other hand it is part of the communal space and this space requires a centre, “a nodal point from which all directions may be channelled and defined”. This space becomes an agency of movement implying the possibility of transition and passage from one point to another. This became clear again through Vernant’s thoughts about Hestia and Hermes, one of the eight divine couples of Greek mythology. The goddess Hestia representsed the house, while the god Hermes is the link, the mediator between mortals and the gods, both those of the world above and those of the underworld, representing at the same time a polarity in space. As Vernant explained, “Hestia belongs to the world of the interior, the enclosed, the stable, the retreat of the human group within itself”. The role of the man within the house was to bring the products of nature into the house, he was the one who links the fields with the basement (the level closer to earth), while the woman was the one who would take the product and, making it into food, would take the dead seed and make it live again as food for the family.

 

The House and Nature.

 

From the foregoing narrative and descriptions it is obvious that the woman “arranges, stores and distributes within the house the riches the man has won through his labours outside.” As in Plato’s own formula, “the woman ‘imitates’ the earth by receiving the seed which the male implants in her, the house, like earth and woman, receives and keeps in its heart the wealth the man has brought to it. The enclosure of the dwelling place, the interior is intended not only to shelter the family group. Domestic goods are also kept there where they can be gathered together, stored and preserved.” 

 

The movement of man between the house and the fields reflects an extension of the house and the family territory and also a connection with the natural world that surrounds him. The house itself and its interior spaces become a microcosm of man’s relation with nature, since the dark places of the house remind man of the cycle of death and life, by means of the cycles of food production and the cycles of nature.

 

Through that reciprocity we can realize how the house and its economy, the house law (oikos-nomos), becomes affected by the law/cycles of nature. The interior design of the house becomes a representation, an allegory of death and rebirth through the cycles of nature, food preservation and silk production. It is also the place where human life and death take place. The man through his movement creates a physical relationship between the oikos and nature, while the woman creates another link with nature and its cycles through the preservation of food and its production, and also through childbirth.

 

Through this narrative of the village structure and landscape closely connected with the interior of the house and the roles of the man and woman is revealed a design connected with the way the peasants dwell. The house territory is manifested through the relationship between nature and culture, characterized by typical human activities. The farming life create a topography of actions bonded with the structure and land of the village territory, also the design of the house.

 

The house and family unit constitute a microcosm of this interaction with nature and their everyday life. The man creates a physical relationship between the oikos and nature through his movement, while the woman creates another link with nature and its cycles through the preservation of food and its production, including through childbirth. The design of these houses help us interpret the local tradition into a way of living without responding to design, architecture and dwelling through form and fashion – instead, responding  more into a social, ethical, cultural  function of  design related with humans and the environment.

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