The orphans of Fascism

While sailing around the Greek Islands over the past 3 years, we have been amazed at the range of architectural influences. From Byzantine towns to the white and blue villages of the Cyclades to the ochre and russet Venetian houses of Symi or the stone Venetian mansions of Hydra and of course to the rustic Greek vernacular.

But what was particularly unexpected to me and may seem strange to you too, was to find modern Italian architecture in the Greek Dodecanese Islands! You can imagine my excitement in making this 'discovery'! These amazing buildings made a change from the, albeit wonderful, Aegean architecture that we had been seeing.

The Dodecanese Islands are a group of twelve on the south east of the Aegean Sea, adjacent to Turkey.

Every empire and tyrant has subjugated the population of this area since history was recorded. Important among the tyrannical empires were the Knights of St John (Crusaders), followed by their victors, the Ottomans.

At the turn of the 19th Century the Italians were at war with the Ottoman Empire who occupied the Dodecanese. The Empire was eventually destroyed and the Italians took over occupation in 1913. The islands were confirmed as an Italian territory by the treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Needless to say, the islanders were not consulted; it seems that in those days no one ever was! The Italians remained there until 1942 when the Germans took over briefly - with the English and Americans snapping at their heels.

So, in the early '20's, architects were summoned by the Italian governors of the Islands to develop an architectural style that expressed modernism as well as the Fascist aspirations of Mussolini's Italy while, at the same time, incorporating a regional aesthetic and influence of what remained of the buildings of the Knights of St John.

In 1933 a devastating earthquake struck the Island of Kos, destroying much of Kos town but revealing layer upon layer of hidden ancient Greek and Roman ruins. The Italians had already started excavating areas of the town to expose the Roman ruins beneath but now they made the most of what the earthquake facilitated and began to re-plan the town. A taverna owner described to us what happened as being the worst and the best thing for Kos. The Italians not only excavated further areas, they took the opportunity to build tree lined boulevards, grand public buildings, open squares, archaeological parks and even public housing turning Kos into what is now a delightful and functional town. A wonderful opportunity not only for rising architects of the time who, employed by the state, let their imaginations soar, but, inevitably, for the expression of Fascist power.

The complex requirements of the government resulted in highly eclectic styles and opened the door to many design interpretations and experiments that, although sometimes over the top, are always interesting. But, strangely, the Italian buildings of the Dodecanese appear to have been shunned by almost everyone; by the Italians because of their connection with Fascism; ignored by the Greeks as structures of a foreign power. They do not fit the strictures of modernist cognoscenti either. Abandoned and orphaned! But, SO interesting!

The photographs of the buildings are best left to speak for themselves but there are some interesting features that I have focused on:
Corner buildings are a typology that has fascinated architects since time immemorial. Think of JB's Corner at Melrose Arch, the old McFail's Coal building and Corner House in central Johannesburg.

Oriel windows are a common feature of Islamic architecture, giving women the opportunity to see what was happening in the street below without being seen themselves. The Knights of St John built similar projecting towers, having the same effect, but to military advantage. It is hard to say whether the oriels are influenced by Islam or by the military imperative or, perhaps, by some other.

Brackets and corbels are used extensively to support balconies and oriel windows. The variation is entertaining in itself.

Surface treatment is highly eclectic and varied and is used to disguise the concrete frame structure of the buildings. The Italians led the world in the use of concrete; framed structures were earthquake resistant. It is puzzling as to why the plans of buildings were constrained as if they were constructed from conventional masonry and the structure then disguised. However, there seems to have been a heartening lack of commitment to the 'true' modernism!

Some buildings have an austerity that conforms more to European modernism of the time.

Others are so over the top that they almost qualify as Rococo.

Parapets and gables are expressed in an impressively varying array. Almost all buildings have a cornice and the gables of some are sculpted into a froth of elaborate plasterwork.

The short column is a feature of a large number of buildings and I think it is derived from the Doge's Palace in Venice. We are off to Venice in August so I will know better when I have been there. Capitals are used but, generally, no bases. The columns are not made from stone but are moulded from concrete made using stone grit to give a colour variation similar to stone. Many buildings are made from concrete blocks made to look like stone. They are even laid in the same manner as stone! The shafts and capitals of columns are designed with amazing variation.

The corners of buildings as well as edges of arches and window reveals are softened through the use of a round plastered section that has the effect of diffusing the harsh Mediterranean light in the same way as the rounded cornices. The diffused edges are one of the few features derived from the Greek vernacular.

I have focused on the buildings in Kos for this blog as I found the town so fascinating and they are pretty representative. There are so many interesting buildings in all of the 12 Islands that it would take a treatise to illustrate them all, but maybe more in another blog....

Talk to Us

Find Us

Henry Paine Architects
23 Southern Right Close
Ballots Heights
South Africa

About Us

Leading architects specialising in community projects, new residential houses and alterations, with a special focus on heritage projects.