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Tuesday, 24 February 2009

"...think of the effect of your work on other people’s views"

Long ago while picking up for a Shropshire farmer, rough shooting on the moors above Strathnairn, I sat in the heather chatting with his wife, and I asked how she thought the world would end - by our hand or nature's? "Our world you mean?" "Yes I suppose I do," "When it's all been discovered," "So we're nearly there". Now that Everest has to be regularly cleared of visitor’s rubbish and cruise ships visit Captain Scott country; you know where you are in the Amazon to six metres using SatNav (OK it's satellite imagery that exposes predatory cattle ranching on rain forest), and the world’s on Googlemap, this chase for the 'unspoiled' is becoming outmoded - though it keeps metropolitan travel touts employed, along with all those academics researching the marketability of destination. We’re moving on - from commodified discovery to how we share an earth we're despoiling. At times I am enveloped in a venomous detestation of things seen, sharing in Waugh's misanthropy at the hand of man on the land (not a link I expected but containing the spirit of my point), at:

... the grim cyclorama of spoliation which surrounds all English experience in this century and any understanding of the immediate past…incomplete unless this huge deprivation of the quiet pleasures of the eye is accepted as a dominant condition, sometimes for mere sentimental apathy, sometimes poisoning love of country and of neighbours. (Evelyn Waugh (1964) A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography)

Given a moment to reflect, I'm not of that deep green conviction that hates the human race, consciously or unconsciously wishing it out of the picture.

The older I grow and the longer I look at landscapes and seek to understand them, the more convinced I am that their beauty is not simply an aspect but their very essence and that that beauty derives from the human presence.
I agree with J B Jackson, an American who thought about landscape all his life. I also agree, almost fervently, with those lines in Matthew Arnold's greatest poem, whose near final lines make the same point about the impotency of landscape as a source of human consolation or joy:

...the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...

It's a way, I suppose, of saying that if Lin and I quarrel no landscape, however beautiful, will join us - though gazing over the olive groves across the ageless Kerkyra Sea to the dappled uplands of Epirus provides opportunity for making peace, even cues for my better self.
We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour, and even thought, in the measure to which we are responsive to it. Lawrence Durrell 'Justine'
Friends came to supper; he from the estuary end of Essex, she a Corfiot born in the village where they live - a cluster of lights we glimpse at night astride a rise between us and the southern Pantokrator. Their company office overlooks the plataea, near the family taverna, opposite a fine town house, used as Wehrmacht HQ during the Occupation, next to a house of many cats owned by the old musician who advised us not to buy a traditional piano - “unless you re-tune it weekly in the heat and humidity” – and found us a good electronic substitute. Our friends have a benign rule about building or restoring houses on the island which, if observed, might do more than any other to reduce the spread of unattractive building everywhere. “Build what you like, how you like, but think of the effect of your work on other people’s views”.

A fine view - so long as you're inside the building
For their business, they employ workmen conscientious about their craft. Our once leaky roof is proof. The new one made by their people, done in three days last February at fair cost, has kept the house dry through the rainiest of winters. They’ve no wish to impose views on anyone, except those they employ. “You can’t resist human nature – especially on a small island”, but I wonder if you can't try to arrive at an understanding among neighbours, that they respect other’s subjectivity when building, while local government can, in making rules and giving guidance to builders and their clients, strive to maintain this principle of thinking about other's people views when creating one's own.
This simple principle was formulated because so frequently and blatantly ignored. Thus, an entrepreneur knowing the potential of a sublime panorama, defaces it for those not paying to gaze on it from the windows of their multi-floored concrete box, or another, seeing the same scene, sets up a beach restaurant whose tacky front becomes invisible to customers sat inside; and others construct, on a green mountain ridge, an extended line of ill-proportioned apartments and villas from which residents - temporary and permanent - can look down on a heart stopping landscape of sea and cliffs, patchworked with shifting shades and colours beneath the changing sky. This aggregation of unlovely buildings, accurately christened ‘Beautiful View’, blights that view for those who pass below.Or perhaps one of the worst breaches of the principle - no longer permitted in Corfu - multi-floored hotels stacked on headlands affording guests panoramas for miles around blighting the shoreline for everyone else.Our friends’ principle is universal. It's disobeyed globally, so that when I see a certain place - and they exist everywhere, sometimes where least expected – my heart warms with affection and respect for those who've recognised, protected, recreated or recovered a genius loci. Thus gazing down at our distant reflections in the clear well in the courtyard of the church and monastery above Paleokastritsa I felt that all could be well if humans could create, respect and maintain such a place - one of the cracks between the concrete we lay so enthusiastically on the earth. On leaving we thanked the two dames, chatting as they worked, tending plants with deft hands, for stewardship that might save us.In their delightful book Corfu Sketches: A Thirty Year Journey - an art and writing collaboration by Theresa Nicholas and John Waller - the latter draws attention to the island's villages, wishing more would choose them as places to live.
The Greeks will buy in Corfu Town and then perhaps in the villages, where there are still beautiful old houses to restore. The foreigners prefer to buy their Mediterranean villa in the olive groves. I hope this book will make the latter think again and consider restoring a village house. They will then become part of the island community. (p.62 John Waller on the island's 104 villages)
Nearly all our friends on Corfu, if not on boats, live in the villages - Ano Korakiana itself, Agios Ioannis, Agios Ileas, Temploni, Skripero, Agios Markos and Corfu town. Friendship is far too important to be inhibited by address, but just as a good friend with a sturdy 4X4 gets teased by me and gives as good as he takes by chaffing me for flying when I'm not on my bicycle, I shall tease those friends who contribute to urban sprawl by buying and building houses outside the island's traditional settlements.

"One advantage of the current economic down-turn" said one friend, advocate of the principle praised here, " is that that kind of thing may be slowed down." To look at the problem in context - how can government or civil society slow down the spread of isolated villas or cloned estates of ticky-tak on the remains of Corfu's green countryside when wealth which once came from olives, oranges, lemons, sheep, goats, milk, cheese, meat and wool now comes, primarily, from the space it provides for a house? So great is the contrast between the return on produce and the return on concrete, that some will even set fire to the trees that get in the way of laying the latter. This human problem should not be seen as an Hellenic issue - though it will be the decisions of Greek politicians, for better or worse, that will be engraved on the historic record. When it comes to bulldozing olive groves, individuals make economic choices to benefit themselves and their families in a global market for properties, and some of the descriptive adjectives, that exemplify these problems (note that 'near' a village often suggests you can drive to it in 'two minutes' but the property is outside the traditional villages boundaries, even when there's only a 'five minute walk' to the village:

New, beautiful, secluded villa of 402 sq.m near the village of xxx. Finished in early 2009, perched on a hill on a beautiful plot of 5700 sq.m in a cul-de-sac, offering isolation and tranquility with panoramas of mountains and sea. A 90 sq.m. heated swimming pool extends the holiday period.
Two storey modern villa of 155 sq.m in secluded olive groves built in 2000 with garden and private parking. Four bedrooms, three bathrooms, lavatory and open plan fully fitted kitchen with all appliances included. Open views to the sea and Corfu Town.
Single storey small villa of 115 sq.m near the village of yyy built in 1984. 1720 sq.m of landscaped gardens with swimming pool. Complete privacy, forest views, private parking, with apothiki converted to a self-contained apartment. A minute's drive to village amenities.
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Yesterday, or was it the day before, as we worked in the garden, we saw the eagles circling, soaring and swooping over the crags, beside them, one folding its wings to stoop into the undergrowth just above the village.
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I posted some of the images of regretted buildings on Flickr and this exchange followed: DoyleSaylor: I suspect your point has wide ramifications, ongoing because of energy and climate reasons. In other words how we construct living arrangements are in need of a global overhaul. That is pretty big scale by anyone's measurement. Anyway your essay above is a good read. S: Many thanks. I'm so glad this is not seen - by you at any rate - as criticism of Greece, largely a victim of human nature and the global market for property on the Hellenic littoral (see 'The Case of Greece' on the encora Coastal Portal by Alexandra Mexa). In another century - or less - if global warming continues the same problem will apply to the lakes of Finland and Siberia. For the moment the blighting love affair is with land values in the middle latitudes. DS: On a tangent but related to you point. I wonder as I go about photographing the urban landscape where I live how one shows these issues? I often don't have time to work on the 'showing', but your image above is a good step in understanding what to show. This sort of defining what is being seen might be a way to help focus minds more. If you have some resources to point me to? S: I'm not an architect or planner. There are many guidelines on what constitutes good and bad building - but given the subjectivity of this subject it's tricky to find agreed ones. Prince Charles encouraged some. Critics rightly worry that codes may block creativity. There's truth in that, but at the same time codes may block crass buildings put up swiftly for profit. It's a bit like rules against pornography end up censoring something with wholly different intentions by a talented artist. The pornographer will always claim the protection we want to afford the latter. There's always going to be a problem defining a shared view of what's aesthetically pleasing and what fits, with integrity, into a natural landscape. Making a list like this of one of so-called 'ugly buildings' is exactly the kind of thing I'd want to avoid. These creations are undoubtedly controversial - ugly to some, magnificent to others - very far from problem to which I'm drawing attention - the damage to the human and natural environment caused by the spread of banal ticky-tacky cloned constructions (houses, hotels and other businesses) despoiling the coastlines and countryside of Greece (and many many other places). For me this problem has to do with height and context; the crass interruption of skylines, and shorelines - things I've tried to show in the images posted. In Corfu it is now forbidden to build above three stories - or rather the tax for extra floors makes building impractical for people whose plans are determined by cost and profit. It's because this is such a tricky issue that I so like my friends' principle (above) "Build what you like, how you like, but think of the effect of your work on other people’s views”. This seems to acknowledge the inevitability of subjectivity and invokes local debate between all involved about the effects of any one building. Perceived ugliness begins with carelessness about other's feelings for their surroundings. It's bound to be an imperfect principle in practice, but it does aim to encourage people to think about other people's collective views, advocating debate and discussion with a view to achieving some consensus on a subject on which agreement is bound to be problematic. That, as my friends say, is 'human nature on an island'. Oddly enough, our planning system in the UK does work a bit like this. You can propose erecting almost anything subject to the absence of objections from interested parties ('building regulation' permissions are separate, being more objective, relating to structural safety to the actual building and its surroundings - relating also to things like drainage, fire safety, accessibility, ancient lights etc.). To object I must create and enter a case against the proposed building into a debate about its merits and demerits, on the basis of current planning law and planning guidance - the latter, especially in a declared conservation area - often dealing with things like the local vernacular, the style and spirit of the place, density and overall appearance of the planned property in its surroundings whether natural landscape or other building or both - something that's been called the pattern language. * * *
Newsletter item from the International Law Office on a New Special Zoning Framework for Renewable Energy Source Projects in Hellas:
In December 2008, after a long period of public consultation during which comments and proposals were submitted by several participants, the special land planning and public works that was formed in order to implement governmental environmental policy on zoning for the installation of renewable energy source power plants issued the Special Zoning Framework for Renewable Energy Source Projects by way of a joint ministerial decision. governmental committee under the presidency of the minister of environment...The framework, along with two other special zoning frameworks regarding the industrial and tourism sectors (both pending), is expected to implement the new environmental policy adopted by the government on the basis of the General Land Planning Framework of June 27 2008. The framework aims to encourage new investment in renewable energy by giving investors the certainty they need in order to make significant investments in the Greek renewable energy market....

For further information contact Sotirios Douklias at Kyriakides Georgopoulos & Daniolos Issaias by telephone (+30 210 8171 500) or by fax (+30 210 6856 6578) or by email ( ...and see this Greek case study of the project to divert a Greek river, the country's greatest ...The Acheloos winding through one of the most important ecosystems in Greece, and perhaps Europe, rising from Pindos chain in Epiros - in central Greece and flowing into the Ionian Sea near Messolonghi...
...and the campaign continues; an example of the growing profile of environmental politics in Hellas. See this article 'The Idea of ending up with a river God' - brilliantly argued by physicist-ecologist Kimon Hadjibiros of the National Technical University of Athens describing the project to divert the Acheloos as an example of national ὕβρις subsidised by the rest of Europe; and this summary on the Europe-wide Penelope Project site, from Yorgos Politis, Greece's WWF co-ordinator of the Acheloos river diversion campaign: 'The futility of the project and the damage it will cause are becoming clear to all'
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See also an English translation of an abridged version of THE PIMPING OF PANOREA by Maria Strani-Potts, as published in ISLAND Magazine, Summer/Autumn 2008. Translated from the Greek by the author, originally published as ο πούλημα της Πανωραίας,, 2008
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[Back to the future - 11 Oct '09: This is the kind of house I like - one that instead of being used by its owner to make a statement about himself enters into a conversation with its surroundings.]


  1. I love Paleokastritsa. I have a set of Paleo's beautiful photos taken back in 2005 when I have visited the place during sunset. I will post some of them in my blog soon I hope.

  2. '...For each man kills the thing he loves,..' Oscar Wilde


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Simon Baddeley