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A Comparison

A COMPARISON BETWEEN TRADITIONAL AND MODERN CYPRIOT HOUSES

Before I start, I must say that whatever I am going to say do not base on scientific research, they are solely personal observations and thoughts. I have been living in Cyprus for some time now. Over a period of time I used to live in a traditional house here and now I am living in a modern one. Some of my observations base on this experience and some of my remarks can be considered as those of an architect and design tutor. Many of these statements are not unknown facts. I will try to sum them up as they come.

I am aware of the fact that traditional houses developed out of the needs of an agricultural way of living and our modern way of living is completely different from it. Probably we will never be able to capture the essence of traditional houses. Our houses on the other hand, seems to have some deficiencies, we are not fully satisfied with them as they are. Studying the way of living and how that was transformed into constructions in traditional houses may give us some clues how things can be done in a better way.

The traditional house I was living in was in Lefke. As it is well known, this part of the island was more under the Turkish influence, and the house was one of the types derived from the so-called “Turkish houses”, developed in the mainland of Anatolia. It had a simple plan; there was a rectangular hall in the middle, with two openings on both ends. There was an entrance facing the street in the front and a door opening towards the garden at the back. The house had four rooms, two on each side of this hall. It had two stories, which were separated from each other at a later time to obtain two individual flats. There have been some innovations to cope with the modern way of living, a kitchen, a bath and a toilet was added to it.

The first floor had two “cumba” (jumba) like extensions, one over the main entrance and the other over the door towards the garden. Main body of the house was made out of mud bricks, floors and ceilings being out of wood. The rooms had narrow longitudinal windows. Ceilings had a height of almost 6 meters. It was a spacious land house, probably built in 1920’s or 1930’s.

As it was the case with traditional houses, rooms were not defined by their functions. They were quite large and could be used for any purpose. We arranged them into either bedrooms or studying rooms; from time to time we were able to change the arrangements of them according to our needs and wishes without any difficulties.

When we moved into this house it was summer. I had some concerns about how we are going to heat this large house in the winter. But this has proved itself to be very easy. One electrical heater was enough to provide us with a comfortable level of temperature. This had two reasons: First one was the fact that the house was constructed out of mud bricks, a material with high heat insulating properties. The second was the arrangement of the rooms around the hall. Since all rooms were placed around the central hall, it had no exterior walls. If all the doors of the rooms were closed it did not lose too much heat. It was large enough for living, and working if necessary. During the night we left the doors of our bedrooms open to let in some of the heat generated from the heater, and generally that was enough.

When we moved to Gazimağusa, we were given a flat in a modern apartment building. It was a new building with a familiar plan: There was a large living room in the front, facing the street façade. The kitchen, a small toilet and the bathroom were in the middle, on both sides of a corridor and the bedrooms were at the back of the house. It had a reinforced concrete skeleton construction with bricks as partition walls. The ceilings were about 2.70 meters high. Each room had large windows, frames of which were out of aluminum.

Each room was designed for a special purpose: A sleeping room for parents, two bedrooms for children, one being larger than the other to allow two beds. Every one of them was arranged after strictly defined functions: This part for living, that part for dining, here is the bed, there should stand the table, etc. It was very difficult to interchange functions between rooms like converting a bedroom into a studying room. Even varying the arrangement of furniture in one of the rooms is not easy. Something always stands on the way, a door, a window, a wall. Part of a column sticking out of a wall sometimes turns furniture arrangement into a tedious task, either we loose some space or larger pieces can never stand parallel to a wall.

Although the house is considerably smaller than the one in Lefke, and the ceilings are much lower, we have serious heating problems in the winter. Reinforced concrete floors and ceilings are much colder. Every room has exterior walls and large windows with metal frames; heat loss is at its maximum. Bedrooms are too small to work; living room is too large to heat. Since there is no door between the living-dining area and the corridor, the heat generated in it goes away to the other parts of the house instead of staying in the living room.

All of this goes to the opposite extreme in the summer: Large windows allow too much heat in, curtains have to be closed to prevent glare, and reinforced concrete becomes too warm. The best part of the house is its relatively large kitchen, which offers space for a small dining table and the laundry automat. We have seen this only in Cyprus; many modern Turkish houses used to have incredibly small kitchens.

The choice of building materials has other deficiencies too. In the traditional house we almost never heard any noise from our neighbors living on the ground floor level downstairs. In our modern house reinforced concrete structure and thin partition walls transmit every single sound made anywhere in the apartment to our ears.

After making these observations I went on with my comparisons between the traditional and modern houses in a more or less theoretical manner. The traditional house did not have corridors. The central hall was a multi-purpose semi-private space. It could contain any kinds of functions and would also provide circulation. It can be the meeting place of the whole family; it can also allow larger meetings. Women could do household work there, children would be able to play or study. It could serve as a dining room. I can imagine housewives accepting informally visiting neighbors for a chat around a cup of coffee or to do some mutual work together, like sewing, stitching and occupying themselves with other kinds of needlework or making preparations for some kind of meal there. It would also allow ironing and mending laundry. This space would be warm in the winter and cool in the summer, if the doors on both ends were open to allow a breeze. There were no lost or unused spaces. All rooms are connected to it. If privacy was needed one could move into one of the rooms.

Modern apartment houses on the other side have this corridor to provide circulation between various parts of the house such as bedrooms and living room. It has no other use than being a corridor, a narrow passage. There is not a semi-private part in the house, where everybody can come together for some kind of activity. There is no place for the housewife to do her household tasks such as sewing and stitching. There is no place for ironing or mending the laundry. One of the bedrooms has to be used for this purpose, and they are not very suitable for it. The kitchen is the only place that may provide some space for some of these tasks. Visiting neighbors can either be accepted in the living room, or in the kitchen, both of which have its own problems: The living room is either too formal or private; the kitchen suggests work, both of which are not very suitable for a leisurely chat or mutual work together. Larger portions of the house stays empty and unused while some places in it are overcrowded at a given time.

The modern flat has no gathering place for the family and larger meetings with other family members or with friends. There is also no place for children in the modern houses. It is true that we have rooms for children, specially designed for their needs. But these needs limit themselves only with sleeping and perhaps studying. Because of this they are separated from the other functions in the house, which make their rooms a boring place after a while, children do not want to be in them alone for themselves all the time. Researchers report that children living in a boring environment tend to put in some kind of excitement in them by just keeping them not orderly. That is why our children scatter their belongings around. Separated rooms can even be used for punishment; that is why children are sent to their rooms if they become too noisy or naughty. Then we wonder and complain why we have nervous children.

Children can hardly be together with the grown-ups in an apartment house, they cannot share household activities with them, and a modern flat does not provide enough space for this kind of need. They cannot bring their toys and play with them or bring their books and study when grown-ups are having visitors or doing some work, or even when they relax. The living room is too formal, has to be kept clean and orderly. The kitchen, where the mother spends most of her time, is too small and may be untidy. But the children have to socialize, they have to observe and learn how grown-ups behave and act; to engage with some activities together with them. This is always a shortcoming of modern houses. Then we wonder and complain when our children are shy, asocial and unwilling to cooperate.

Let us investigate on this point a little further. Mothers dislike children under their feet when they are working, that is quite natural. But we know that especially younger children require visual contact in their earlier years and at least auditory contact with their parents when they are a little bit older. When they are kept in their rooms they become unhappy and can even be scared, feeling as if they are abandoned. On the other hand parents also do not like the idea of leaving them unobserved. They may play around with electrical devices, lean out of the window, and may even engage themselves with experiments that may be harmful for them. There is no solution for this dilemma in modern houses. Children move out of their rooms into the kitchen or into the living room, which causes debates between them and the parents, because this means extra work for the mother: She has to clean and tidy the kitchen and the living room again and again, collecting scattered toys and books, bringing them back to the children’s room. We cannot cope with this problem, what we do? We send our children out of the house as soon as possible, to the nursery or kindergarten when they are old enough, then to school. We let others intervene with their behavior and education. This is a sad prospect for both parties. Then we wonder and complain why they do not act after our moral standards and we speak about the generation gap, that our children do not understand us.

There is no room for water and fire in the traditional house. Because of this, toilets, bathrooms and kitchens were placed outside of it, in the garden or the courtyard. Modern technology provides us with the possibility to keep these elements more in control, so now we have them in the house. This means greater comfort. But we still seem not to have found a better solution for their arrangement inside the house itself. We tend to have the kitchen nearer to the living and dining area or to the entrance. Bathrooms tend to be adjacent to the sleeping quarters. We accept this as normal. We never consider the long corridor connecting them together. If we think that most of the work of a housewife is divided between these two (as it is the case in many Turkish houses, which have the laundry automat in the bathroom), we can easily realize that her daily life will be spent by wandering from one to the other, doing something here then there. We never consider how much time and energy is lost through this. The problem becomes more serious if we consider a duplex-house, where the bathroom is on the first and the kitchen on the ground floor. Then we wonder why women, especially housewives, are overtired, nervous, unwilling to take part in social activities.

To be fair, we must admit that modern technology provides us with some services like running water, electricity and gas, we can even make use of central heating, all of which ensures some kind of comfort and ease in household tasks.

Recent feminist criticisms mention the lack of a private working space for women in modern houses. If we consider this criticism, we can understand that women have also no place in a modern flat. We always say that the whole house belongs to them, but this is not true. Only children have their private quarters. When the husband comes home from work he occupies the living room, reading his newspaper and watching television. He should not be disturbed by household work or by children. The housewife has to share the living room or the bedroom with her husband, or she may go to the children’s rooms. She cannot claim a space as of her own. She has not a private room to read a book by herself, to write a letter in privacy, to think, dream or, if necessary, to weep. This reminds us of a yearning by Virginia Woolf; she has written that all she asks is for a room of her own in her life. Modern houses do not provide that. Then we wonder why women feel themselves as being nothing after a while in such kind of an existence. They can be there only for their children and husbands, not for themselves. Can that be the cause of many bodily and mental illnesses we observe in the modern life? Or divorces?

True, women have much more liberties in our times than their mothers or grandmothers had. Technology has provided them with many tools too. They can take more part in social and cultural activities. They have more to say in political affairs. But do our modern houses reflect all these? We let our daughters go to school and have an education. After that we like them to have a profession. But how are their houses going to cope with their special, private needs? We never consider this. Where are they going to practice, or learn more about their professions, or prepare themselves for their occupations in a modern flat? Then we wonder about the increasing number of single women.

We take it for granted that they get pregnant and have a child. We also take care that they are suspended from their work towards the end of the pregnancy and in the early babyhood of their children. But should child caring be the whole occupation of an educated woman? They cannot leave their children alone up to a certain age. Should they be confined to their houses during this period, which can be very boring? This is the case now. But if they would have a special place of their own they could still do some work for their professions or jobs. They can take assignments and work on them for example. Modern technology provides us with tools such as telephones, computers, etc. If women could have access to them they could take care of their young children and could still have contact with the outside world, doing something productive in their professions. This would for sure provide enough excitement and satisfaction for them. Our houses are still lacking these facilities.

Thinking of private working rooms, modern apartment houses rarely provide studies or working rooms for men too. These flats are meant for just eating, watching television and sleeping for every member of the family. They are supposed to leave the house as soon as possible, children to school, parents to work. But what about work brought home? A teacher will read the examination papers, a scientist, an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, etc., will always have the need to read, make preparations, in short, to work at home. Where should he or she do this? The living room with the dining corner is not suitable for this. It is open for everybody, including children and visitors; the television set is also there. Bedrooms or the rooms for the children are also not very suitable for such tasks as well as the kitchen. Solutions for these needs are not satisfactory and permanent: One of the mentioned spaces has to be closed up for these purposes and that only temporarily. Everything has to be cleared and restored back into its older order to convert the working area into its original function. It is never the same as having an extra studying room.

Traditional houses had much more contact with the nature. Houses had courtyards or gardens, which would allow outside activities. There were various plants and animals in them. Some of them would even support the household by providing vegetables, fruits, meat, milk, eggs, etc. Children would grow up by learning about them and about various facts of life in a natural way. Modern houses are generally much poorer in this aspect too. Gardens and courtyards are converted into garages and parking spaces for cars. The soil is covered with hard surfaces. All outside activities are confined to narrow balconies or terraces. Even they are converted into interior spaces by covering them with an iron-glass constructions, as it is in many cases in Turkey. Clothes and laundry have to be dried indoors, in rooms or bathrooms.

Traditional houses contain built-in furniture such as wardrobes, shelves, divans, etc. They are hardly visible; provide enough storage without taking any circulation space from the room. Modern houses generally lack built-in furniture, we have moveable furniture. Their arrangement in the house becomes a tedious task; they have only a limited way of arranging because of one-sided and pre-dictated functional plans. Furniture demand space and occupy the useable space in rooms. Careless construction leaves parts of the columns or walls protruding into the rooms result in lost spaces between walls and the furniture. Carpets and living habits in connection with them, such as walking bare-footed or sitting on the floor, become rare and rarer.

I think I have come to an end with my observations. I am aware of the fact that this essay has developed itself more from a comparison between traditional and modern houses towards a criticism of modern apartment flats. But I think that was in the nature of the approach. There is an increasing interest in traditional architecture in the recent times. We try to learn more about it. With a nostalgic approach we tend to glorify methods of construction, building materials used in them. We are discussing how suitable they were, how they were in accordance with their environmental and climatic conditions, etc. We even try to find some aesthetic appeal in them. But very often we fail to consider the functional requirements that lead to these constructions.

We do not exactly know how the needs of children and women were satisfied in traditional houses. We may assume that some of them did not exist as they do today. Children would not go out to school; women did not have professions outside of the house. Generally houses were much more spacious, families were not confined to the core family consisting of mothers, fathers and children only, they were larger, and more than one generation would be living in them. This meant sharing of household tasks, participating in the education of the young, occupying them with various tasks at home. And perhaps it was also a remedy for boredom, because of more choice for contacts with different aged people. How can we deny the usefulness of a contact between children and grandparents?

Traditional houses were not designed by architects. They were the result of the living conditions of their times. It seems to be more reasonable to study these conditions and the resulting forms after these. That may give us a broader insight into our ways of living and how we are accommodating them.

As I said at the beginning, we may never capture the essence of traditional houses, and probably we shall never be able to repeat them as constructions or reconstructions. But if we can understand our own needs in a better way and try to find better solutions for them, we may be able to achieve better results and we may enrich our lives as well. That will surely provide the link on the chain between the traditional and modern houses.

I thank you for giving an ear to my thoughts.

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Presented on a meeting in Lefkoşa, organized as part of an UNOPS project about traditional settlements in Cyprus, on which both northern and southern Cypriot architects and engineers were working, 2002

Repeated in Turkish at the Chamber of Turkish Architects in Lefkoşa, after the request of the its president Necdet Turgay, also 2002

Revised, 2009

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