The rich history of Cyprus, from the dawn of human civilization to the end of the Middle Ages, is punctuated by significant monuments. But alongside the island's ancient ruins and the Byzantine churches stands its anonymous vernacular architecture, the built environment of our historic settlements. These traditional buildings, constructed to shelter the life and aspirations of ordinary people, encapsulate the material expression, the living testimony of the culture, the beliefs and the social, political and economic circumstances of our ancestors.
The form and organisation of settlements and their vernacular buildings depend on the topography of the land, the climatic conditions, the available materials and their properties, but also on socio- economic factors. Villages seem to organically grow upon the landscape, be it steep mountains, rounded hills or plains, forming a remarkable unity between natural and manmade environments. Settlements were compact, densely built, with narrow, earthen or stone-paved streets uniting the individual dwellings and linking the settlement to the agricultural land at its outskirts. The church was the historic core of the settlement, a gathering place for the settlement's inhabitants and the centre of its social and economic activity. Other public spaces were rare, usually developed alongside the main road leading to the settlement.
The Rural House
The rural house was built without following a set plan, but according to the needs of the family. The organisation of the house reflected the introverted nature of the community. The closed inner courtyard was the heart of the house, a main living and working space for both people and animals. Surrounded by high walls, it was an inherent and necessary component of the dwelling space and provided access to the different parts of the house, usually two or three makrinaria (narrow long rooms), cellars and/or di- chora (double space rooms) which were always positioned against the edges of the plot, either in a linear or an L-shape formation. Access to the courtyard from the house was via a courtyard door that led straight to it, or through a semi-open arched portico. The rooms were rarely linked to each other; their doors usually opened only onto the courtyard. The dichoro was the most important internal space of the house and had multiple functions: it served as a living and sleeping room and as a reception space, but it could also house animals. The dichoro was formed by doubling the width of a makrinari by replacing the dividing wall with a wooden beam spanning the length of the room, or by inserting a stone arch in place of the wall. When the arch was used, this room was called palati (palace).
The iliakos (sun-room) was another important feature of the traditional house. It was a semi-covered space built to face the sun, open on one side using one or more consecutive arches or beams on poles, according to its length. The most interesting morphological feature of the house, the iliakos also pro- vided access to the adjacent rooms of the house. It was often repeated on the upper floor of the house.
The doors and windows were small and few and proportioned according to the structural qualities of the building materials. Openings towards the street were scant, usually with only a front door and an arsera (small window) high above it for ventilation. Houses were always positioned to- ward the south or the east, to absorb as much sun- light as possible.
A second floor was built usually when the plot was small and did not allow for ground floor ex- tensions. Access to the second floor rooms was always via an external stone or wooden staircase located in the courtyard against the front elevation of the main house; this staircase usually ended in a small covered wooden balcony.
At higher elevations, on the mountains, the topography limited the space available for housing. In this case a courtyard was rare, and the buildings seem to clamber up several levels on the steep slopes. The different levels of the house were accessed straight from the street at different elevations. There was often an iliakos which formed a kind of covered verandah on the highest level of the house.
The Urban House
The transition from the rural to the urban type of dwelling began toward the end of the 19th century, almost coinciding with the end of the Ottoman era. This transition also coincided with the emergence of the Cypriot middle class, the result of a socio- economic restructuring that brought with it a new perception of social and economic practices. The island's vernacular architecture soon began to reflect the changes in Cypriot society.
The location of the main house at the far end of the building plot became outmoded - the new urban dwelling, projected as one finite unit, needed to be displayed so it could communicate its owner's social status. Thus it was gradually brought for- ward toward the front of the building plot, where it bordered the street. The new style, as dictated by modernisation, was neoclassical; its morphological elements adorned city mansions but also influenced the humble buildings of the period in both urban and rural environments.
The main rooms of the urban dwelling were de- fined, organised and built together at the same time. The middle-class owner began to create his own dwelling space, suited to his own specific needs - this space still borrowed from the basic layout of the rural dwelling (which had by then become unsuited to the middle-class urban life- style). For some time, various areas, such as the kitchen, washroom and laundry room, remained in separate units from the main building because of their diminished importance as spaces for social functions.
The individual rooms in a house were organised around a principle which was to become the nucleus for each urban housing unit. The central hall- way or iliakos served as an entry from the street, while one or two rooms (makrinaria) were located symmetrically on either side of it. If the width of the plot allowed, one of these makrinaria would become a dichoro by the inclusion of an arch. Originally, the iliakos itself used to have an open arch toward the courtyard in the back - this open arch was later was closed off with a door. Despite small changes, the iliakos remained the main room of the house.
Later, the strict symmetry governing the layout of the house became more elastic. Serving as a central hallway, the iliakos continued to have the same ample proportions, but one of the side rooms became wider to accommodate important social functions and evolved into the salon, while other rooms became smaller. The final phase in the evolution of the urban dwelling was completed when the house included all its necessary spaces under one roof and became one individual free-standing unit, situated within an urban fabric of similar units. Inside the dwelling, the tripartite organisation of rooms persisted, but over time this became subject to numerous alterations with a noticeable shift away from its original symmetry. One end of the iliakos could be separated down the middle with glazing, while often a verandah appeared in place of the iliakos at the back of the house. Despite variations, the whole building was gathered under a four-pitched tiled roof.
In the plan of the symmetrical house, balance was also reflected in its facade, with the front door placed at the centre and flanked by a window on either side. In cases where the building was moved back from the street, a covered portico shaded the front entry - this was achieved by using space from the front of the original iliakos. On other occasions a covered porch was built along the entire front of the house. Windows were added to the side elevations of these free-standing houses, and the side elevations themselves acquired compositional importance.
With the introduction of new technology, industrialised, easy-to-use materials and an increasingly modern way of life, the people of Cyprus inevitably abandoned the island's traditional architecture. Young architects, educated abroad, returned to Cyprus in the 1950s-1960s, bringing modernism with them. During the years following the independence of Cyprus, the urban landscape transformed ac- cording to the modern international style. The first tall buildings appeared in the Republic, and their morphology expressed the technological achievements of the construction industry: extended cantilever concrete roofs, prefabricated brise-soleil, and reinforced concrete structural frames. A large number of public buildings, including schools, were constructed during this period, as was much of the island's tourist infrastructure, which needed to accommodate an increasing influx of visitors. This new architectural style was also adopted by the Republic's city dwellers, who took to the modern, urban way of living in all its manifestations.
Contemporary architecture and techniques re- placed or altered the historic building stock. After a long period of indifference, when vernacular architecture was synonymous with rural misery, traditional/historic architecture (along with the modern movement) is once again being appreciated as a valuable component of our island's cultural heritage. Today, thanks to renewed interest, historic rural and urban settlements are being rehabilitated and revitalized. The government is supporting this trend by providing generous financial and other incentives for restoration and rehabilitation projects, and by organising events aiming at making the public aware of the value of traditional Cypriot architecture.
From "Cyprus Today" Magazine, July – September 2011