Architecture of the Dodecanese

1. General information

House architecture of the Dodecanese is undoubtedly similar to that of the rest of the Aegean. The archetypal single-room house is quite common. On the other hand, the islands’ location, directly connected to the Asia Minor coast, Cyprus, Crete and the Arabic countries, along with their separate historical course from the rest of the Aegean, created a relative architectural independence of the Dodecanese. What differentiated this image of the Dodecanese even more is their delayed integration into Greece in 1948, after three decades of Italian domination.

2. Factors of interior differentiation

The above do not mean there is total homogeneity in these islands’ architecture. A series of factors has developed local peculiarities throughout time. Location defined the influences on each area to an extent. Therefore, similarities with the Cyclades are much clearer on islands closer to central Aegean, such as Astypalaia. Size and resources are always a key parameter for an area’s cultural and economic development. The economy of small arid islands was based on seafaring, trade and money orders from emigrants, who were seasonal at first, and later on permanent. In later times, local economies were based on specialization. Kalymnos and Chalki developed sponge fishing, Karpathos developed constructing buildings, and Kasos, Symi, and Patmos developed seafaring.

On the other hand, larger islands (e.g. Rhodes, Kos) were able to play a more complex historical role, reflected in the variety of their houses. During several historical periods, their relative advantages drew a series of conquerors, which established their dominance and added a symbolic character to it by intervening in the buildings. Therefore, local building tradition was enriched by the development of a wide range of architectural expressions, which were either created by conflation of foreign influences (e.g. Ottoman) with local characteristics or carried untouched foreign standards (Venetian architecture, colonial architecture of the Italian Rule in 1912-1943).

From the 14th up to the 16th century, Rhodes had been a base of the Knights Hospitallers. This period gave the island some impressive monuments, such as the Knights’ Hospital, the palace of the Great Magister and the renowned assembly of the old city with Knights’ Street. Mosques preserved at the capitals of Rhodes and Kos, where Muslims had settled, are also quite impressive. Such are the mosques of Suleyman the Magnificent, Recep Pasha and Ibrahim Pasha on Rhodes, and the Loggia and Defterdar on Kos.

The Venetian Rule period has left its marks on all islands of the Dodecanese. Older settlements, such as Paleo Pyli (Kos), Ano Poli (Symi), Chorio (Kalymnos), Olympos (Karpathos) were built in the hinterland of these islands –usually in fortified locations– in order to avoid frequent pirate predation. During the Venetian Rule, they were built in the form of castles, with the exterior wall being formed by a sequence of houses, called xokastra (“outer castles”) on Astypalaia. In the castle of Astropalia, which was built in the 13th century and is the best-preserved example, houses are frequently standardized, meaning they did not develop naturally, but were built according to a specific logic. Due to the lack of space, houses were built close to each other vertically in two or three storeys, with a narrow façade. Each floor was a separate single-room house.

3. Dodecanesian houses

The oldest type of house we can see on all islands of the Dodecanese is the single-room, one-storey building with a terrace and a narrow or wide façade. The spread of this rudimentary type is based on common law, according to which firstborn daughters were endowed with the family house. Therefore, the father had to build other houses for each of his daughters. The basic unit consists of a rectangular bedroom 5.00-7.00 m long and 3.00-3.50 m wide. At the front part, there is the kitchen and the living room. The fireplace with its chimney corner is built at the corner close to the door. At the back of the house, there is the sleeping room, which is actually the most interesting characteristic of Dodecanesian houses. There was a wooden loft elevated by 1.50-2.00 m used by the entire family. On Kalymnos it is called krevvatos, on Karpathos sofas and on Rhodes pataros. Very often, there was another higher loft called tavlados or panosoufi. On Astypalaia, next to the bed, there used to be three rows of wood-carven shelves called krinjoles, where homemakers kept their china. Under the loft there used to be a storage room called apokrevatos. Benches were necessary for the interior arrangement to be complete. Apart from fulfilling basic needs, the interior arrangement in traditional Dodecanesian houses also had a symbolic ceremonial character. This part is illustrated with names given to things used, as well as with the adornment with decorative plates and embroidery.

Another version of the basic type is that with the additament of an auxiliary Γ-shaped room, which was used as a kitchen on Karpathos and Kasos, and was called kellos (“cell”). A yard with a stonewall completes the square. The yard, where Dodecanesians spent a great part of their private and social lives, was necessary to the house.

In houses built on inclines, the basic one-storey type partly became two-storey – what we call an anogokatogo. A variation of this type is proper two-storey houses, called double houses, where the ground floor used to be a living room and the upper floor a lounge. A spacious veranda on the upper floor is distinctive on Nisyros and Patmos. It is called upper yard and doors of the house’s main rooms lead there. The upper yard is sometimes a part of the façade or of the interior as an atrium.

4. Building materials

The construction, and therefore the image, of Dodecanesian houses are closely connected to the quality of local materials. Buildings are stone-built. The main body is constructed with wooden beams made of pine-tree or cypress, called katrania on Kos and Rhodes, and fides on Patmos. The extend to which the beams could be bent defined the basic dimensions of houses with a terrace. One solution to widening buildings was building an arch crosswise to the beams, which supported them and allowed the width of the roof to double. Two rooms were thus created, corresponding to two obvious practical zones: those of sleeping and dwelling. On Karpathos, Kasos and Rhodes, a crossbeam on a pillar supported these wooden beams. The pillar symbolized the leader of the family and was specially decorated on holidays. Spaces between beams were covered with sticks or canes. On top of them, there were successive layers of bulrush, canes and seaweed. A final connecting layer of clay called patelia waterproofed the terrace. It used to be renewed every September. A small parapet called koumoula was built on the terrace. Spouts (kanalos or soulouna) enriched the exterior image of folk houses. Open spouts like channels with edges like handlebar mustaches, were common on exterior walls on the Dodecanese. We don’t know of any buildings with vaults on the Dodecanese, but there are some on Astypalaia and Symi to a smaller extent, mostly at basements of houses.

5. Neoclassicism

From the late 18t century on, neoclassicism, already spread in the Ottoman Empire, was followed by Greek prospering communities of the Dodecanese and decisively affected local architecture, as illustrated mostly by the domination of tiled roofs. In the broader region, economy flourished in the 19th century, leading to the increase of population. Original settlement cores were expanded. The new parts had a more bourgeois character. Organized open public spaces were also created.

Architecture of later houses seems to be oriented towards a kind of bourgeois conception reflecting a kind of popularized neoclassicism mixed with local characteristics. Depending on the ground and the density of the town planning, houses can have a narrow façade (e.g. Kastellorizo) or a wide one (e.g. Chalki). They are put up vertically in two or three storeys. Gabled roofs with pediments dominate. The way roofs were built, as well as imports of standardized timber from Asia Minor after the 19th century, favored larger dimensions. The ground plan is almost a square, divided into two zones that include a large room at the front –the lounge– and two to three rooms at the back. The staircase is always internal. The façade has symmetrical apertures and a central balcony. Twin narrow-façade houses with the same or separate roofs are one of its variations. This new kind of architecture would come to dominate and mark the images of Symi, Chalki and Kastellorizo. At the fronts of seaside settlements, imposing houses of rich tradesmen and sailors (captain houses) were built, where accumulated wealth from voyages is shown off. Richer houses follow the same pattern with the others: they have larger dimensions, symmetrical interior structure and are artfully decorated.

6. Italian Rule

The Italian dominance on the Dodecanese (1912-1943) was followed by dynamic alterations on buildings, serving political goals of conquerors. Italians reorganized historical centers, restored monuments of the times of the Knight Rule and provided settlements with a public buildings’ network. Colonial architecture was sometimes a mixture of exotic eclecticism and sometimes followed the standards of the modern trend. At all events, it didn’t last long and did not influence later architecture on the Dodecanese.