The Aegean landscape is the synthesis of natural and cultural forms in a dynamic process of emergent self-organisation. Yet this historic equilibrium is extremely fragile, sustainable only as long as the economic and cultural practices that formed it continue to operate. After thousands of years of existence, the beautiful Cycladic landscape now faces the threat of change imposed by a growing tourist economy.
Why is the native landscape important? In the Aegean islands, it is a thing of great beauty. But beauty is not skin deep: it is the visible result of geology, ecology, and culture interacting through millennia. The native landscape is extremely significant because of its unique and rich biodiversity, its capacity to survive, and its history, spanning back as much as 9.000 years to the first agricultural communities.
Far from a scattering of individual elements, the native landscapes are systems that work as wholes. The clash of the tectonic plates forces great mountain ranges to jut out of the sea. Water and wind start to eat away the rock. Plants and fungi eventually settle and establish a layer of humus, of living ground. Animals follow and become part of the symbiotic and competitive relationships between all life forms. A web of life envelops the islands. This influences erosion and the movement of water, and dynamic hydrological patterns emerge. Into this world come humans. First as foragers, but later as shapers of the land: they burn, terrace the hillsides, introduce extensive grazing and cultivation. They change the land, and nature adapts. Soon a complex ecosystem that is at once human and natural emerges, the human aspects of which are coded into culture. Thousands of years later, now, the economy and culture collapse, to be replaced by something new, in the case of the Aegean tourism.
If these ecosystems and forms are largely human, and have evolved over time, is there reason for concern now? The problem is the current speed and scale of change, as machines do in a year what took humans generations. Additionally, climate change is, or soon will be adding great pressures to these ecosystems, pressures which they may not be able to adapt to in time. These changes also directly affect tourism, as they degrade the very resource that tourism seeks to sell. Areas of the Mediterranean, such as the Spanish littoral, have already undergone destructive change, which has been a great failure not only visually, culturally and ecologically, but also economically.
So, as the economy of tourism replaces the historic ways and these treasures are being degraded, the question arises: can the new economy coexist with the native landscapes, in a way that is not destructive?
Since 2001, while working on projects in the Aegean, we have been identifying possible solutions and experimenting with them. A key project to this research has been Antiparos Design Properties, a development of private villas on pristine land. Seeking a new equilibrium, this project attempts to reverse the trend of transformation as destruction; by recasting transformation as synthesis, as cohabitation. New strategies have been developed to bring about this synthesis: analyzing the historic structures and processes of the site, identifying the contemporary needs and capabilities, and combining them into a new integrated structure and dynamic process.
The Historic Structure
An amphitheatrical condition develops, with flatter more open conditions at the tops and sharper, denser conditions in the vortex-like center.
The site is characterized by a structure of seasonal streams which serves as the spatial skeleton.
The higher areas are exposed to extreme searing winds while progressively greater protection is afforded towards the protected vortex center.
The soil is characterized by good structure but is extremely poor in organic matter due to desertification.
The predominant structure is caused by the combination of wind, water and soil: Vegetation is abundant in the protected and moist stream beds, becomes scarcer on the semi-protected pezoules, and is very limited on the wind-swept and eroded slopes.
These are the traditional system of agricultural terraces, which are a complex landscape structure comprising of retaining walls, slopes, small buildings, wells, animal pens, and distinct flat areas for grains, vines, vegetables and fruit trees. These are generally parallel to grade.
These are the traditional dry-stone boundary walls, which are generally perpendicular to grade.
Agricultural planting followed the parameters set out by topography and hydrology: fruit and vegetable patches close to the protected and moist stream beds, followed by vine in the pezoules, followed by grains and grazing areas in the least protected inclined fields.
The Historic Processes:
The loss of soil is the main characteristic of Aegean landscapes, due to millennia of burning, woodcutting and tilling, combined with strong winds during the dry season and infrequent, torrential rain. Erosion progressively denudes the hilltops of topsoil while collecting it at the bottom of the hydrological network.
Most of the year is characterized by dry conditions with no surface water. The infrequent rains do not cause visible surface water to appear but crisscross the topography with seasonal stream beds.
Native vegetation exhibits a great degree of visual variability through the annual cycle, from a predominance of green prairie vegetation in winter to flower-prairie in early spring to phrygana (scrub) in flower in late spring to dried-out phrygana in the summer. This intense seasonal change is characteristic of Aegean landscapes and particularly striking on this site.
The native species do not appear haphazardly. Rather, a fractal pattern is evident. Neither distinct and homogeneous species areas, nor an even distribution, but a gradient which appears at all scales, characterized by a predominance of one species in one area interspersed with individuals of neighboring species areas.
The Aegean has followed a characteristic pattern: Forest, deforestation, grazing, agriculture, intensive agriculture, abandonment, desertification. This process took place between the fourth and first millennia BCE, from which time on the Aegean landscapes have been ‘man-made’ rather than ‘natural’, and have functioned as a finely balanced system of natural and human inputs.
As the traditional agricultural economy ended so did the upkeep of the pezoules, whose disintegration is causing extended loss of topsoil and adds to desertification.
Historically water management is achieved through the system of pezoules, whose retaining walls stop water runoff and allow it to seep into the planting soil. As the system of pezoules progressively disintegrates, water retention is reduced adding to desertification.
Agricultural planting was characterized by degraded succession as the soil became ever poorer, resulting in the replacement of vines by grains and eventual abandonment of the site.
The New Structure
The existing structure of pezoules is identified, reconstituted, and expanded so as to form the skeleton for other elements to attach to. Following the vortex dynamic, they progressively disappear as one moves to the top of the site.
Roads are designed to follow alternately the pezoules (horizontal) or the xerolihties (vertical) vocabulary. Thus they are camouflaged into the existing or expanded structure.
Delimitation is avoided but where necessary is achieved through roads, xerolithies and pezoules, thus integrated into the skeleton.
Two structures exist for the vegetation. One is the reconstituted agricultural structure, which follows the vortex skeleton and is determined geographically by the site’s limiting factors: wind, soil and water.
The second structure involves the non-agricultural phrygana vegetation. Its structure is determined by the fractal pattern identified above. Photographs and air-photos of the site provide the scale, grain and direction of the species areas. Each area in turn is not planted with a single species but with a species mixture such that each area contains a primary species as well as percentages of species of adjoining areas, the whole planting eventually constituting a uniform gradient combined with local discreet identity, characteristic of the Aegean at many levels.
The New Process
Market forces have been controlled by locating houses and roads in such a way as to create limited islands of occupation on an otherwise identifiably historically ‘Aegean’ landscape.
Construction processes have been partly integrated into the formation of the site. For example, excavation soil (over 1500m3 per house) is used to progressively form the reconstructed-expanded skeleton of pezoules.
House owners often do not appreciate the natural cycles of truly native vegetation which dries out completely in the prime summer months. On the other hand, artificially produced, planted and irrigated ‘mediterranean’ vegetation cannot be widely used due to ecology and visual identity. To address this while maximizing ecological and visual integration with the existing landscape, the vegetation is divided into four zones:
Zone A is the existing landscape, which is protected as much as possible through delimitation of the construction site. This is a naturally dynamic zone.
Zone D is a constructed and irrigated ‘mediterranean’ planting, using primarily resilient species which aesthetically mimic the local phrygana vegetation. This is a static zone.
Zones B and C are strategic intermediate zones:
Zone B is a zone of accelerated re-colonization of native species. Left unplanted, but randomly irrigated for the first years, it hastens re-colonization by surrounding native species. Irrigation is progressively eliminated resulting in a naturally dynamic zone.
Zone C is a zone of structured mixture. ‘Mediterranean’ plants are planted in such a way that interstices form between them. These interstices will be progressively re-colonized by native species, resulting in a static / dynamic combination.
From D to A the four zones create a gradient from artificially controlled ‘mediterranean’ gardening to fully dynamic native vegetation.
Irrigation DynamicsWhile initially programmed to be irrigated, considering that rainfall is from 400 to as little as 200ml per year nearing desert conditions, over-irrigation resulted in killing off the drought-adapted species and impoverishing the new landscapes in both visual and ecological terms. For this reason, we are currently running a 2-year experiment in collaboration with Olivier Filippi, Yiorgos Petrakis and Kalliope Grammatikopoulou, in order to go completely irrigation-free. More on that as it develops…
Landscapes of Cohabitation on Antiparos Island, Greece
Project: Island villas development
Location: Antiparos, Greece
Area: 12 Ha
Scope: Site Planning, Landscape Architecture
Landscape Architects: doxiadis+ (Thomas Doxiadis, Terpsy Kremaly, Aggeliki Mathioudaki)
Client: OLIAROS S.A.
Photographers: Clive Nichols, Cathy Cunliffe, Thomas Doxiadis