Semi-Public Spaces and Practices

Agrinion, Greece


Konstantina Pappa

The hayat is a term for an architectural element of the vernacular architecture in the East-Mediterranean areas that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. It can be described as a courtyard or a balcony, depending on the building. It is a semi-open space, covered by a wooden construction, and serves as an entrance and extension of the house to the public. Although there are variations in the typology, depending on the area, the hayat was commonly used in the domestic architecture of the whole region, appearing both in rural cottages and vernacular settlements.

The term hayat, translated in Turkish as life, was integrated into common Greek language (χαγιάτι) and has an Arabic root: hayah. This linguistic connection is interesting because vernacular architecture has been a disputed subject in these areas. Since the mid-1800s, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, each of the emerging nation-states (such as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, etc.) turned towards a nationalistic view of cultural heritage, as a way to proclaim their sovereignty. In the case of Greece, research on vernacular architecture has often tried to create links with the Byzantine Empire (seen as authentically Greek, Christian, etc.) and renounces the Ottoman past, while similar cases of re-constructing a heritage are registered in Turkey and Serbia.

However, the special focus of my research is the function and use of these spaces in everyday life, particularly in the spatial context of the rural areas in southwestern Greece. Thus, the analysis is based partly on personal experience and stories shared in my family regarding my grandparents’ hayat in Agrinio, Greece. Built in 1902, the house was located on the outskirts of the town, where the extended family (mostly the women) were growing tobacco leaves. The hayat was the part of the house where people spent most of their time and, interestingly enough, the character of the space is semi-public: on one hand it works as an entrance to the private part of the house, but it was also the living room, often a kitchen, and a gathering space for people of the neighbourhood to chat, eat, and sometimes work. The hayat can be characterised as a communal space, very close to the notion of a common courtyard, but its openness towards the public varies geographically, due to the climate or the cultural context (for example, in Iran it was a private communal space for the extended family).

In the study of vernacular architecture, variations in the hayat’s typology can be identified in relation to social fabric and proximity to settled areas. The hayats located inside towns are usually more privacy-oriented, in contrast to rural areas, where the communities were depending on collectivity, not only for labour but also in a need for sociability: there, these spaces served as a centre for the communal aspects of life. The cultural significance of the hayat stems from the moments of shared discussions, celebrations, and funerals that took place as performative acts of public life. Especially for women, who were limited to domestic environments and labour, the hayat was a vital social space. Therefore, the hayat was a communal space in practice that provided a platform for learning by sharing experience.

The aim of this research is to look into the different adaptations of the essence of the hayat in the contemporary context, embedded with notions of migration and gender. Knowledge in this case is produced by the spill-over of the private into the public, by making people visible and challenging dominant narratives. For this reason, the project seeks to explore performative acts of communities that challenge traditional notions of public/private, and identify the spatial conditions of these practices in the urban landscape.