FEATURE — Spring 2004

  The Architectural Wonders of the Aegean World
The Astypalaia Kastro, built 400 feet above sea level, followed the collective fortification system of vernacular architecture common to the region. An assembly of dwellings, with the same floor plans as those once standing inside the fortification, emerged later downslope, creating a spine to the port.

Four decades of teaching and research culminate in Constantine E. Michaelides' authoritative—and lavishly illustrated—"scholarly guidebook" to the historic Greek islands, The Aegean Crucible.

By Liam Otten

As a student at the National Technical University of Athens in the late 1940s, Constantine E. Michaelides studied literally in the shadow of the Parthenon, that supreme icon of rigorous, rational Western architecture.

Yet Michaelides, now dean emeritus of the School of Architecture, was equally impressed by the wealth of traditional, everyday structures—the houses, courtyards, and chapels—produced by anonymous, unschooled, and unlicensed builders.

That conversation, between "formal" and "vernacular" architecture, would prove central to Michaelides' long and distinguished career as teacher and practitioner. Ideas, discussed and debated with students and colleagues, fed lectures, seminars, groundbreaking publications, and even buildings on the Hilltop Campus.

Vernacular architecture of the Aegean island towns is exemplified by this house in Paros, Naoussa.

Now Michaelides has released The Aegean Crucible: Tracing Vernacular Architecture in Post-Byzantine Centuries. Some four decades in the making, The Aegean Crucible is both a scholarly guidebook to the historic Greek islands and lavishly illustrated meditation on the built environment.

"Formal architecture is sponsored by ruling groups, be they royal, democratic, religious, entrepreneurial, or non-governmental," Michaelides says. In most instances, "the architect's name is affixed to the building, an association that in today's highly commercial world is inseparable from the celebrity status of the architect.

"Vernacular architecture, by contrast, has no prestigious sponsors. Its architects remain by and large anonymous. More often than not, the sponsor and the architect are the same person."

Yet Michaelides points out that formal and vernacular architecture are not necessarily at odds. Indeed, as The Aegean Crucible demonstrates, they "often evolve within the same space, mutually informing rather than antagonizing one another."

Pioneering scholarship

When Michaelides arrived at Washington University in the fall of 1960, the International Style, which sought to distill Classical principles to their purest form, was at the height of influence, epitomized by the stately glass-and-steel skyscrapers of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Shapes were boxy, roofs flat, facades unadorned.

Yet cracks, so to speak, were beginning to show. Michaelides recalls that, for many young architects, indigenous styles re-introduced important questions of local context and regional character. As a teaching assistant at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design (GSD), his own interest had been further encouraged by the eminent theorist and historian Eduard F. Sekler, who asked him to lecture on the topic.

"Vernacular architecture is never finished, in the sense that a building like the Parthenon is finished," Michaelides concludes. "New rooms, new structures, even new neighborhoods can be added without disturbing the original composition ... ."

At Washington University, colleagues such as Fumihiko Maki, who went on to win the 1993 Pritzker Prize, and Roger Montgomery, future dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, explored similar concerns through the School of Architecture's Urban Research & Design Center program, which they co-founded in 1962. Maki, for example, was a strong proponent of what he dubbed "collective form," which focused less on individual structures than "groups of buildings ... that have reasons to be together."

Such cohesion, Michaelides recognized, was a central feature of Aegean cities and towns, which he'd begun photographing shortly before coming to St. Louis. Over the centuries, Aegean builders had forged a highly expressive and adaptable spatial language from a relatively stable vocabulary of construction materials—chiefly stone and stucco—and building types: diminutive, single-nave chapels; blocky monochoro (or "single-space") houses; fortress-like settlements known as kastra.

In 1995, Constantine Michaelides returned to Givens Hall to teach a seminar on Aegean architecture; his latest book grew from these classes.

In 1963, Michaelides, supported by a grant from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), began work on Hydra: A Greek Island Town, Its Growth and Form, the first comprehensive analysis of an Aegean community. Published in 1967 by the Washington University Press, the book details—through essays, black-and-white photographs, and drawings—the complex process by which relatively modest individual buildings cohere to form a meaningful urban environment.

"The structuring armature is informed by the organization of the typical home, the interrelation of clusters of houses, the formation of streets and paths, the generation and containment of public spaces, and the color used, and so on," Michaelides explains.

"In other words, Hydra is an organic whole, none of whose parts could be removed without diminishing the whole."

Shaping the Hilltop

Michaelides was appointed dean of architecture in 1973, leaving little time for pure research, but vernacular ideas continued to influence his built works—including the Hilltop quartet of McMillen Laboratory (1969), Bryan Hall (1970), Lopata Hall (1981), and Jolley Hall (1990).

Each building is unmistakably modern, structurally sophisticated, a work of graceful, exacting geometries. Yet their consistent formal vocabulary, sense of human scale, and incorporation of local materials allow them to "sit quietly"—as the AIA noted when inducting Michaelides into its College of Fellows—amongst historic, collegiate Gothic neighbors.

Aegean architectural influence extends to the Hilltop Campus in Michaelides' Lopata Hall design.

"The idea was to make contemporary buildings that reflect and interpret the established campus plan," Michaelides explains. "The use of Missouri red granite, the spaces between buildings, the columns of Lopata Hall, which echo Ridgley Arcade—these elements all produce a sense of continuity."

Throughout those years, Michaelides continued photographing Aegean architecture, publishing the occasional article, and frequently lecturing to both student and alumni groups. Jim Burmeister, A.B. '61, M.B.A. '63, M.A. '67, then-director of the Alumni Council Cities Program, recalls that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Michaelides addressed more than 40 gatherings around the country and even hosted a series of Aegean tours.

By the time he retired in 1993, Michaelides had accumulated more than 10,000 slides—to his knowledge, the largest archive of Aegean images in the world.

Back to work

Retirement, of course, is a relative term. In the spring of 1995, Michaelides returned to Givens Hall to lead what proved a popular seminar on Aegean architecture.

"He really wanted to share his passion for those buildings," recalls David Block, M.Arch. '95. Block, a St. Louis native who now develops affordable housing in Providence, Rhode Island, adds that, ironically, studying Aegean forms reinforced his appreciation for local brick-and-sandstone—the St. Louis vernacular.

Churches and chapels are equally important components of the traditional architecture of the Greek islands. The great majority originated not as institutionally commissioned buildings but as private chapels erected to fulfill a personal vow.

"I think they're just two sides of the same coin: people, not necessarily trained architects, making places for themselves," Block says. "They know instinctively that they've got to stay warm and dry, and at the same time they manage to build something beautiful."

In 1996, Michaelides began writing The Aegean Crucible, basing chapters—on Aegean history, topography, climate, fortifications, housing, churches, chapels, and other topics—largely on his class lectures. By 2000, he had completed a draft (in longhand) and soon enlisted Jessica Morgan, M.Arch. '02, and later John Neiderschmidt, director of information technologies in the School of Art, to help scan images, input text, and create rough layouts.

Word got around. In the spring of 2002, an editor with a major British architectural publisher approached Michaelides to request a manuscript. She was stunned to learn that it included more than 600 illustrations.

"She said: 'Professor, we've never published anything with more than 150 illustrations. Can you cut it down?'" Michaelides slyly recalls. "I said: 'Surely, surely. I can cut 10, 20, perhaps 30 images. But if I cut more than that, this will not be the book I want to have.'"

Still, the episode was a turning point. Six hundred illustrations, Michaelides realized, would require time, effort, and significant amounts of pre-production work. Most publishers, perhaps understandably, would balk at the commitment.

So he decided to publish it himself.

The Aegean Crucible

Now The Aegean Crucible, the culmination of decades of travel, research, teaching, and writing, has finally arrived, released on Michaelides' personal imprint, Delos Press.

Tight, jargon-free prose and more than 660 photographs and illustrations, the vast majority from Michaelides' collection, guide readers through one of the world's great architectural traditions. At the same time, Michaelides demonstrates the seemingly limitless ingenuity of everyday builders across the archipelago in adapting to specific climatic, cultural, and political circumstances.

Flat roofs, color, and whitewash are a few of the many components constituting the evolving smaller-scale architecture of these islands. This home in Kalymnos, Chorio, represents the distinctly Aegean urban fabric.

For example, the fortress-like kastro—essentially tight clusters of monochoro houses—arose during a long period of war and piracy that began with the Crusaders' sacking of Constantinople in 1204. The monochoro itself featured battlement-like windows, high ceilings, and thick masonry walls that provided insulation in summer and winter. Narrow floor plans accommodated the poor spanning capacity of local wood, while simple rectangular shapes and consistent 2:1 proportions allowed for continual addition to the city plan.

Over the centuries, even the grandest edifices became infused with local flavor. After the final fall of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453, repairs and maintenance to the 6th-century Panayia Katapoliani in Paros—the Aegean's most significant early-Christian basilica, inspired by Imperial Constantinople—were conducted using local methods and materials.

By the mid-1700s, the Panayia Katapoliani had gained a trio of Cycladic bell towers, layers of whitewash, and other regional elements, thus merging, as Michaelides points out, "the remnants of formal architecture with the improvisations of vernacular architecture.

"Vernacular architecture is never finished, in the sense that a building like the Parthenon is finished," Michaelides concludes. "New rooms, new structures, even new neighborhoods can be added without disturbing the original composition, because the spirit of that composition is one of continual growth and evolution.

"The essential form survives."

Liam Otten is a senior news writer in the Office of University Communications.
The Aegean Crucible retails for $40 and can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-866-463-2954.