HOME About Barnaby Books        Reviews     Articles    Recommendations Links      Contact Info

ARTICLES

Fortunately enough things still go wrong - Travel in Libya - Evening Standard

A few hours in Bodrum town, walking the busy quayside or losing yourself in its narrow alleys, and you are likely to understand only too well the problems facing the Mediterranean. For you too fall prey to the natural cupidity that lurks in us all. Everybody wants a bit of Bodrum, with its crescent-shaped harbour at the heart of a peninsula of rocky inland valleys and tourquoise, cove-indented coast. In recent years however, unscrupulous development has come close to killing the very thing that attracted outsiders to the region in the first place. So how do you build on this fragile coast without destroying it?

Sans Ahmet, a relative newcomer to the peninsula, has taken up the challenge as if the despoilation of the landscape were a wound in his own side. Armed with a visceral feel for the landscape and a thesis on the local building tradition and its materials, he has set himself up as an architectural David, determined to show up the mighty concrete armour of the development Goliaths by using principles that leave the environment as far as possible intact.

Before returning to work in Turkey, Sans studied and lived in Vienna, and his attitude to building on the peninsula has the fresh, incisive clarity of an outsider. When he takes visitors to see the half dozen houses he is building up a secluded valley on the tip of the Bodrum peninsula, he chooses a long and winding route to set the scene. In a tranquil inland valley, a green eiderdown of patchwork fields and animal enclosures punctuated by wild outcrops of rock, he points out a number of buildings. Only the distinctive local style of chimney betrays a distant hilltop farmhouse, obscured by mature cypresses. Until recently, Sans explains, all building on the peninsula began with a summons to the master chimney-builder who, after a careful examination of the site and its effect on the prevailing winds, would orientate the chimney and build it to its optimum height. Closer to the road, the land is dotted with smaller farmsteads, groups of one, two or three simple, one-storey, box-like units built round the pivotal chimney. Under Sans's X-ray gaze, these whitewashed stone structures, growing from their rock foundations, are transformed into skeletal prototypes of pure modernism, tempered only by their organic roots.

The horizon of a single hill divides this ancient terraced farmland from a scene of painful devastation, the hellish spectre of mile upon mile of sea-view development. With no respect for the steep contours of the coast, an army of diggers has gouged away to provide flat footings for holiday barracks. Sans drives on remorselessly until your senses dull at the sight of yet another series of repetetive ferro-concrete units, and you sicken to see another hillside being turned from heaven into hell. A team of bulldozers scour away the fragile red topsoil and to your horror turn brutally to attack a small wizened grove of olives. Generations of care wiped out in one thoughtless moment. As you leave the site the splintered bedrock is being exposed to the sun.

By mapping out the parameters of the battle fully, Sans impresses upon visitors the difficulty of his mission and initiates them into his way of seeing. As well as the destruction, we visit a busy family-run saw-mill, where there is no mistaking the effect of tens of thousands of emply concrete sockets, each aching for a door or window frame. It is difficult to curse the development out of hand too when you realize that from the point of view of Turkey's indigenous, inflation-beseiged, middle-class, who are financing most of it, it represents a concrete investment hard to find elsewhere. And hard not to chuckle when you hear that the agriculturally impoverished coastal land, now a development goldmine, was the traditional inheritance of local women, whose brothers are now reliant on them to subsidize their inland farming.

But Sans's passion really begins to show when we drop in on Enver in his local tea house. An elderly master-mason who hides behind thick mud-spattered glasses, Enver is both Sans's employee and his inspiration. Even the story of his apprenticeship singles him out as a mystical muse, whose skills might well be linked with those of the local masons in the 4th-century BC who built the Mausoleum of Halicarnasus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As a young shepherd Enver had no interest in cutting stone until one day he stumbled across a neat but rusty row of chisels set fast into the rock face. He played at them with a hammer as if they were a xylophone when to his surprise the rock cracked neatly in two. He has been perfecting his technique ever since.

As Sans and Enver talked we eavesdropped on tales of wood for beams being felled in the mountain forests of Cilicia and sent down stream in the spring, and of the tradition of burying prepared lime in a pit at a child's birth so that it would be in peak condition when he would want to build his own house. The two were exhiliarated by their recent experiment in using a camel caravan to take quarried boulders for Sans's houses off the hills.

Only as the sun was thinking of setting did we eventually arrive at the slight valley, tucked in from the coast, which Sans had chosen for his development of half a dozen houses. They are apparently simple structures, all built from locally cut stone and wood, in harmony with traditional regional forms by a local team of builders. Yet at the same time, in its differing combination of the local rectangular unit, each house is astonishingly individual, imaginative and playfully complex. Designed for specific owners to suit their multifarious interests and needs, the houses are nevertheless united by a number of guiding principles.

After the desecration we had witnessed, from afar it was hard to believe that some of these buildings were still under construction. For one of Sans's first laws is the retention of all existing trees. This immediately integrates the new houses in their landscape, respects the spirit of the place, provides vital summer shade and in spring time bathes the nascent buildings in the odoriferous blossom of mature citrus trees. The houses are built not to be seen but to watch from, to wonder at nature as she unfurls herself down the valley to the distant sea.

This sense of living in an harmonious look-out post is enhanced by the use of local stone which blends with the surrounding rocky hillside, and the pointing of the houses with a lime mortar made with stone dust from the same quarry and only the most carefully chosen shades of sand. None of the houses break the natural rhythm of the skyline, and rather than fighting the natural slope of the land, amusing use has been made of being able to enter the houses on different levels. Monolithic horizontal stones protruding from the vertical terrace walls give hidden but effective access to all areas of the gardens.

Yet disguised within these harmonious traditional exteriors are a series of emphatically modern, open-plan interiors, complete with the requisite plethora of power points for the most millenial of lifestyles. True, each house shares with its ancestors a focal stone fireplace, and some have been detailed with recessed stone cupboards, or strange quirks like an old drop-loo which was discovered and reintegrated in another. Yet the overriding impression is of light, open, space, a far cry from the small, dark and heavily decorated interiors of a traditional Bodrum house. The unchallenged supremacy of stone and wood continues inside, but it is given a modern edge by the subtle details in windows, shelves, doors and stairs. Hidden here on an obscure Turkish hillside, it is not hard to imagine a New York stockbroker on-line and speculating on the Dow Jones, without destroying so much as a leaf of the surrounding environment.


Back to Articles page


Recent Books
by Barnaby Rogerson


The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad: And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism

Book of Numbers

The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography