The Essence of the Traditional System Prevalent in the Mediterranean Region is Found in the Ethics & Values Related to Habitat

by Besim S. Hakim

The mind set and associated skills of the contemporary architect whose ideology is rooted in modernism and post-modernism does not provide her or him with the outlook and skills necessary to intervene intelligently in habitat. Developers and home builders have taken the role of habitat producers, driven by the notion that habitat is a product to be manufactured and sold like any other product in the marketplace, without concern for livability or the quality of neighborhoods. Yet for a successful habitat to emerge, we need to learn from the experience of previous eras and cultures that managed to produce habitats and neighborhoods superior to those produced since World War Two in the United States. The generative system and related processes of decision-making, and the nature of the control mechanism used, particularly the system of codes and their application, is paramount to understand and learn from if we are to intelligently intervene in the processes that generate and produce great places to live. This short essay attempts to point out the main features of traditional codes in various regions of the Mediterranean.

The essence of the traditional system

The essence of the traditional system prevalent in the Mediterranean region is found in the ethics and values related to habitat. Based on textual and built evidence, this is a system that has its roots in ancient Near East civilizations.

A primary element is respect for one’s local traditions and customs. This translates to values that perpetuate a local typology. Mediterranean practice borrows from local typology when undertaking a new building project, and may improve on certain aspects related to construction and architectural details. The master-builder may exercise his own improvements on what is an established local design language. The idea that a building is designed with a totally foreign design vocabulary is unthinkable. It would be viewed and considered an act of arrogance, which religious values condemn.

A second major element is the importance attached to good relations with immediate neighbors, and with others in the neighborhood, that foster a sense of community. Such good relations, based on trust, mutual respect and peace, translate into ethical codes guiding construction that affects proximate neighbors.

A third major element is the cleanliness and maintenance of the immediate public realm, primarily streets and cul-de-sacs. These spaces are the responsibility of the owners or tenants of adjacent buildings whose external walls abut the public realm. The concept of the Fina (Arabic word), an area of about 1.0 – 1.5 meters in width (3 feet, 3 inches – 5 feet) alongside the external wall(s) of a building abutting streets and access paths, was understood to convey certain rights of temporary usage to the owner or tenant of the abutting building, and responsibilities for cleaning, maintenance, and insuring the removal of any impediments to the public right of way, such as removal of rainwater accumulation, mud, and snow.

Underlying goals and intentions

Two sources are used. The first is from Byzantine culture in Palestine, the treatise of Julian of Ascalon, dated 533 AD, early sixth century. The second from Islamic culture in Spain, the treatise of Ibn al-Imam (died 996 AD), dating from the late 10th century.

The goal and intentions of Julian’s and Ibn al-Imam’s treatises are as follows:

The goal is to deal with change in the built environment by ensuring that minimum damage occurs to preexisting structures and their owners, through stipulating fairness in the distribution of rights and responsibilities among various parties, particularly those who are proximate to each other. This ultimately will ensure the equitable equilibrium of the built environment during the process of change and growth.

Assumed intentions of Julian’s and Ibn al-Imam’s treatises:

1. Change in the built environment should be accepted as a natural and healthy phenomenon. In the face of ongoing change, it is necessary to maintain an equitable equilibrium in the built environment.

2. Change, particularly that occurring among proximate neighbors, creates potential for damages to existing dwellings and other uses. Therefore, certain measures are necessary to prevent changes or uses that would i) debase the social and economic integrity of adjacent or nearby properties, ii) create conditions adversely affecting the moral integrity of the neighbors, and iii) destabilize peace and tranquillity between neighbors.

3. In principle, property owners have the freedom to do what they please on their own property. Most uses are allowed, particularly those necessary for livelihood. Nevertheless, the freedom to act within one’s property is constrained by preexisting conditions of neighboring properties, neighbors’ rights of servitude, and other rights associated with ownership for certain periods of time.

4. The compact built environment of ancient towns necessitates interdependence among citizens, principally among proximate neighbors. As a consequence of interdependence, it becomes necessary to allocate responsibilities among such neighbors, particularly with respect to legal and economic issues.

5. The public realm must not be subjected to damages which result from activities or waste originating in the private realm.

Specific issues addressed by Julian’s treatise are land use, including baths, artisan workshops, and socially offensive residential uses; views, for enjoyment and those considered a nuisance; drainage and planting. In the case of houses and condominiums, the treatise addresses acts that debase the value of adjacent properties, walls between neighbors, construction details, and condominiums in multistory buildings and those contiguous with porticos.

Ibn al-Imam had another important intention articulated in his treatise:

It is the right of a neighbor to abut a neighboring existing structure, but he must respect its boundaries and its owner’s property rights.

Specific issues addressed by Ibn al-Imam’s treatise are land use, including mosques, bakeries, shops, and public baths; streets, including open-ended streets, cul-de-sacs, “fina”, projections on streets, servitude and access; walls, including abutting and sharing rights, and ownership rights and responsibilities; overlooking, including visual corridors that compromise privacy; drainage and hygiene, including responsibilities for cleaning toilet septic tanks and removal of garbage; planting and animals.

Examples of specific codes

There are a number of codes related to the issues covered by Julian and Ibn al-Imam. I have selected four codes which tended to be universal in their impact in shaping the built form of traditional towns in the Mediterranean. Local customary practice determined the final form and character of a place.

PARTY WALLS: Buildings abutting each other on more than one side were a major feature of ancient and traditional towns dating back to 2000 B.C. and earlier in the Near East. Julian recognized this age-old custom in Palestinian towns and addressed it in his treatise. The longevity of this custom in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods can be traced, over 1200 years, to a ruling in 1777 in documents found at the island of Syros in the Aegean. In Islamic culture the issue of sharing party walls was affirmed by the Prophet himself during his reign in Medina (622-632 A.D.), which translates as: “A neighbor should not forbid his neighbor to insert wooden beams in his wall.” This saying is always quoted by Muslim jurists, including Ibn al-Imam and others who wrote about construction and design codes, to ensure that neighbors respect this right. Implementation details for this stipulation were developed by jurists and are fully documented in Islamic jurisprudence literature. Two air photos of traditional towns from North Africa and Greece demonstrate the impact this stipulation, figures 1 and 2.

FINA (SYN: HARIM): This is an invisible space about 1.00-1.50 meters wide alongside all exterior walls of a building which is not attached to other walls, and primarily alongside streets and access paths. It extends vertically alongside the walls of the building. The owner or tenant of the building has certain rights and responsibilities associated with his fina. Although Julian does not specifically mention it, its usage is clearly evident in Greek towns and villages which have survived since the post-Byzantine period, primarily from the post-1500s period. There is adequate evidence for this concept from pre-Islamic history in Arabia; the concept was thoroughly recognized by Muslim jurists and scholars in the extant literature of the Near East, North Africa, and pre-1500 Spain. It is a powerful concept and an effective tool that has done much to allow the articulation of the facades and thresholds along the public realm. Built-in benches near entrances, troughs for vegetation, high-level projections in the form of balconies and enclosed bay windows, and rooms bridging the public-right-of-way (sabat – Arabic term- discussed below) were all possible due to implementing the various allowances of this concept. Maintenance of streets and private passage ways, by keeping them clean and safe from obstructions, was also related to the responsibilities associated with using the fina. Figures 3-6 are examples from Tunisia, Greece, Italy, and Spain.