Symi has been designated a national monument for its exceptional architecture. Many of the distinctive neoclassical houses have been restored by Dimitris Zographos (www.dzographos.com), an architect whose grandparents came from the island. Following a near-death accident, Dimitris escaped to Symi to recuperate. A decade later, he is still there, reviving traditional craftsmanship with a quietly modern sensibility.
How did Symi's distinctive neoclassical style evolve?
Wealthy Symiot merchants wanted their town to look like Smyrna, their main trading partner on the coast of Asia Minor. Travelling around Europe, they were also influenced by 19th century architecture and design. My great-grandfather's house is full of Thonet furniture from Vienna. The roof tiles were imported from Marseilles. It was a great status symbol to have a neoclassical house.
What was the vernacular architecture like before then?
The earliest settlement consisted of simple dwellings inside the walled castle, built 3000 years ago on top of the hill. As the threat of piracy faded, the village gradually spread towards the sea. It contains all the vernacular styles of the Aegean, because Symi is at the crossroads between east and west, north and south. Wandering among the ruins, you can see layers of techniques, textures, and patinas from different eras. Restoring these old houses is like excavating the past.
Do you feel constrained by strict building regulations on Symi?
No. I am a modernist, but I come from a country with incredible tradition and history. As a young architect who wants to reinvent everything, when you first come across traditional architecture you think: It's wonderful - but boring'. But I soon realised that although the houses look alike, no two are the same.
How has local craftsmanship influenced your work?
When you live in these houses, you really understand the wisdom of the architecture in relation to the local landscape and environment. The orientation, materials, and layout all protect from the elements and serve a purpose. Each room serves a different time of day and year.
Why does the traditional architecture feel so modern?
The architecture of the Aegean has been a big inspiration for modernism, most famously for Le Corbusier. You can really see the foundations of the modernist movement here. The materials may change, but the principles are the same.
Could you give some examples?
In the mountains are many monasteries, built like fortresses in isolated locations during the Turkish occupation. The courtyards are defined by columns or arches, which frame the view and create space. This transparency is the essence of modernism it's hidden, but it's always been there.
After 10 years on Symi, what's the most important thing you've learned?
Living so close to nature, I've realized it's important to be connected to the landscape. Not just as an architect, but as a person. You get grounded. One morning, you wake up feeling grouchy and it's because of the south wind. As soon as the north wind blows in, your mood lifts and you're full of energy.
Photography by Nick Seaton. Words by Rachel Howard.
You can visit Dimitris' website here