07 Mar 2022

Büşra Korkmaz, Architect

Uğur Özcan, Faculty Member, FSM Vakıf University


Traditional settlements have evolved into what they are because of the knowledge that mankind has accumulated over history. Humanity lives in an inevitable relationship with the environment. To consciously take advantage of the opportunities nature provides in turn ensures high quality architectural output. When we look at examples of traditional architecture, we see that nearly all buildings of yore are in a symbiotic relationship with, and were built relative to their surroundings. They are sensitive to nature and people, and they are capable of establishing a healthy bond with their environment. Not only does this create a strong sense of belonging for their users, but it also is what makes them true homes.

Such settlements are the result of techniques past down over generations alongside materials given to their builders by Mother Nature, and likewise exhibit regional diversity. No one particular architectural style unites them, for they take their shape from the conditions of their environment and the cultures of their architects. Climate, topography, and geography all dictate what materials available are at the builder’s disposal. The oldest of these is stone which, in nature, in found in quarries and mines. As a building material, natural stone is extremely flexible. Its characteristics render it capable of radically altering both the appearance and atmosphere of whatever structure it happens to grace. These characteristics vary widely depending on where it has been extracted. Each and every stone building therefore carries the characters and soul of place of origin of the materials from which they are built.

Many a settlement has survived into the present day, whist many others unfortunately have not. Closer examination of those that have (with their characters in tact) can teach us many a thing about both the architecture of their periods of origin and the culture of regions they hail from.

Architecture refers to the process of creating spaces. This process can be further broken down into form, technique, material, and ornamentation/content manipulation (Çaycı, 2016). Studies investigating what exactly gives a space its character broadly identify six factors: topography, climate / vegetation features, regional population density including the traditions and customs of the population in question, natural materials, and construction techniques (Gür, 2015). It goes without saying that mankind has been pondering over the nature of architecture, and the kind of spiritual activity manifests itself in the creation of architectural forms for millennia (Schmarsow & Fiedler, 2017). In fact, examples from traditional architecture can shed light on what the essence of architecture is. Known as architect-less architecture, these structures which Bektaş (1983) describes as “the art of public building” are widely accepted as a phenomenon that evolves over time, that is anonymous, that is open to development and diversification, and that walks hand in hand with people and living (Başoğlan, 2004). Their relationship with the natural environment, that is, their oneness with nature, sets an example for modern sustainable architecture.

Environmental issues have become a hot discussion topic in recent years. The post-modern period is witnessing a once unfathomable explosion in the number of buildings being erected. Humanity, whether we like it or not, is therefore having both a negative and (in certain cases) positive impact on the environment. In the past, people built themselves homes out materials that were within reach, and that in no way went against the grain of their either setting or their way of life. In other words, traditional architecture was solely shaped around satisfying a person’s fundamental needs. A similar language is spoken by nearly all structures in such settlements, and is what gives them their own distinct sense of identity. The selfhood of every geographical area has survived into the present through this accumulation of traces embedded within its very texture.

The Environmental Factor in Traditional Architecture

When we examine traditional building typologies, we see that structures of yore used to be built relative to the climate and topography of their location. What we stylistically refer to as ‘traditional architecture’ is shaped according to local needs out of regional materials without any written rules; in essence, it relies on local builders and on tradition. The Turkish word “örf” meaning custom or observance, derives from the Arabic “urf” meaning something that both “good, found pleasant,” or even (come to be) known” as well something that is “customary.” Therefore, the (Arab-Turkish) understanding of “tradition” can be interpreted as forms of social behaviour generally accepted by a particular society, and that are continuous or dominant in their practice (Dönmez, 2007).

Culturists were the first people to make mention of traditional architecture in the nineteenth century upon researching rural life (Kıstır & Kurtoğlu, 2018). Traditional architecture has no one particular style. Rather, its single most important influence is the environment. In simple terms, environment refers to all living entities on planet Earth and how they relate / interact with one another. The environment is a whole; certain aspects of it natural, others are artificial. Natural events and natural structuring determine all elements that constitute a natural environment’s identity. The elements of identity related to the social environment are mainly composed of the existing cultural structure, beliefs, customs and traditions. In contrast, the form a man-made building takes, where it is built, what is used for, and what its typology is all determine its identity in terms of how it interacts with its environment. Geological, sociological and climatic factors all influence an architectural space’s characteristics, and respectively exhibit regional variation. Traditional practices allow for the emergence of a regional architectural language that reflects climate, local culture and lifestyle, and history.

Construction Materials

Any proposed building must be designed -first and foremost- relative to the conditions of its environment. The relationship between nature and the artificial world is an inevitable one. Mother nature’s own materials, i.e. adobe, wood (from trees), stone (which must be processed before it can be used) serve as the building blocks of traditional architecture. In contrast, advancements in technology as well as the global availability of materials have led people to become more practical, in turn forcing natural materials to take the back seat, so to speak. People began seeking out new construction materials beginning in the nineteenth century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the West, which in turn spurred new movements in art and architecture come the twentieth century (Bozdoğan, 2015). These newfound materials grew in popularity because they offered an array of advantages: they were diverse in their range, more flexible, cheaper, and easier to produce. However, in recent years, there is renewed interest in natural materials sparked by greater environmental awareness and research into sustainability has begun (Öztank, 1999). While nearly every material comes with its own set of advantages, natural materials come with even more. They are more durable, permanent, reusable, and they do not pollute, chemically speaking. Encouraging builders to use local materials in modern architecture would ensure both ecological and cultural sustainability (Öztank, 1999).

Architecture is the single most important element allowing cities to be etched into social memory. For local residents and tourists alike, centuries-old traditional settlements cannot be thought of as separate entities from their respective environments. A building’s form and materials constitute elements the human eye, which otherwise is in a state of constant motion, and thus is easy to distract, can most easily discern. Form, likewise, constitutes a material’s metamorphosis. Its limits are that of the nature of the material alone. Buildings, and hence cities, thus are sharped by their materials. In the post-modern world, ubiquitous architecture is built out of ubiquitous materials, leading to monotone cities with monotone skylines. The same cannot be said, however, for urban silhouettes moulded out of traditional elements.

Natural Stone Use in Buildings

The first examples of stone settlements that we know of are dwellings carved into massive rock faces. Of course, how stone is used has changed and diversified over time. In the context of construction, we see stone used as a load-bearer, cladding, ornamentation/decoration, and even aggregate (Erbaş, 2018). Natural stone can be used as both a stand-alone material as well as in combination with other materials, yielding a diverse array of structural possibilities. For example, as a load bearing material, stone by itself can be used to create masonry bonds. Likewise, when combined with wood or with reinforced concrete, it can vary up the designs of load baring systems.

Like all natural materials, the characteristics of stone in nature are as varied as regions from where they are extracted, especially in terms of structure and texture. A building material, its individual nature has the potential to transform the atmosphere of whatever space it is integrated into. The relationship between material and space directly influences how a building’s user experiences that building. Given stone’s status as a natural material, it harbours a distinct identity with distinct physical properties that very much reflect themselves on the atmosphere of a given space. Louis Khan had placed a lot of importance on how building materials were used, and took that as the basis for his rather mystical approach to architecture. He mentions the “essence of being” in all of his designs, and emphasizes that things have a certain nature. According to Kahn, every material has its own nature, noting that is our job to understand a material’s sense of order, and allow it to be what it wants to be (Kolektif, 2002). During the post-modern period, certain “modest modernist” architects began to refer back to traditional architecture out of a need to pull architecture back into its deserted relationship with location, as well as to replenish architects’ otherwise dwindling interest in natural materials (Sharr, 2017). This led both them and those who agreed with them to research traditional construction methods alongside modern ones until they were able to blend the two, i.e. yesterday’s consciousness with today’s opportunities.

We are able to read how many an ancient natural stone building has survived into the present day simply by looking at the techniques with which it was built. The main reasons why there is so much diversity in traditional structures stems not only from local materials, but also from building techniques that take root in the traditions of the cultures that developed them, and the climates that shaped those cultures. Such structures give us clues about the character of where its built.

The Trulli Houses, Puglia, Italy

The town of Alberobello, Puglia in southeast Italy is known for its dry stone huts with conic roofs. The houses have made their way onto UNESCO World Heritage List, and date back to the middle of the fourteenth century (Url 1). Clay and stone constitute the two fundamental building materials of this Mediterranean region’s architectural heritage. The roofs in particular characteristically take the shape of either pyramids, domes, or corbeled limestone arches, and among the best preserved examples in all of Italy, this despite similar examples existing elsewhere. The vast majority of them are a homage point for tourists, and have been converted into hotels.

Trulli Houses (Url 2).

The huts of Trulli have corrugated roofs. This type of masonry bond is created without mortar, and is commonplace throughout the Itria Valley. In the past, farmers would have used them as storage depots, temporary shelters, and permanent homes. In addition to creating a unique building style within the region because of the form that both the material used and the bond system provide, these huts were at point also viewed as a common product of locals protesting the tax system of the period. They were built in the nineteenth century in response to the government imposing high property taxes on houses in to prohibit unauthorized settlements. They are easy to build, and just as easy to demolish, as they lack mortar, and they lack proper roofs. The domes could demolished when necessary, thus allowing the hut to lose its status a house, in turn forcing the tax obligation to be lifted, and allowing local residents to avoid heavy taxation (Url 3).

Trulli houses lined along a street (Url 4).

The region’s wet winter climate also forced locals to construct many cisterns. In fact, beneath nearly every hut lays a cistern that, at the same time, meets the dwellers’ water needs. The huts were built using limestone extracted during the construction of these cisterns as well as rocks collected from the surrounding vicinity (Url 1). Wall thickness varies depending on how many layers of stones there have been corbelled (Url 5).

The huts’ whitewashed limestone walls were built using dry stone masonry, and are double-shelled The huts consist of core units that meet the basic needs of the dweller; the huts’ walls have only one door alongside a few small window openings. The huts have a rectangular floor plan that can be articulated depending on dwellers’ needs. A simple system of corner arches fastens the conic roof to the structure. Roofs whose arches or vaults were built using wedge-shaped stones are also double-shelled, like the walls (Url 1).


An example a Trulli house roof (Url 6).

The Houses of Old Datça, Muğla, Turkey

The history of Old Datça (Datça, Muğla) dates back to ancient times. The region is known to have hosted countless civilizations, the traces of which can be read through whatever structure that as survived into the modern era. In the olden days, the economy of the district had been centered entirely on agriculture. However, it was the development of various transportation networks that would eventually introduce tourism, in turn serving as an important source of revenue for locals. Nevertheless, it was lack of transportation beforehand that enabled Old Datça to preserve its traditional character (Yazar, 2018).

A bazaar in Old Datça (Url 7).

Its buildings are generally no more than a single storey high; likewise, they have flat roofs, and would have been built out of stone and adobe (Doğan, 2008). The streets of Old Datça are quite narrow because of the adjacent houses, and are defined by the their façades and courtyard walls  (Yazar, 2018). Until relatively recently, both Greeks and Turks lived side by side in the settlement. In light of that, the stonework very much reflects the work of Greek masons. They, in turn passed their trade on to the Turks, who then faithfully carried on the masonry and bonding tradition that they had acquired (Url 8). In this unique building tradition, walls are built by layering roughly cut stones that get smoothed out along their sides and foreheads with a hammer, in turn allowing us to be able to visually follow the horizontal rows. Beyond regular bonding, the walls can also be created by varying the joint spacing depending on the size of the stones.

Old Datça – Cami Street (Url 9).

The houses of Old Datça were built out of individual core units that could be added onto when the need arose. This forming of a whole, per se, is what has allowed them this form of public art to last for as long as they have.

Every settlement has its own unique character that seems to transcend time. Be it consciously or unconsciously, factors such as climate, topography, and culture all influence how a space takes shape during its design, hence what makes them distinct. This, of course, is most evident in traditional settlements. Development traditional architecture with local materials and relative to location emphasizes a building’s sense of belonging. Traditional settlements that have taken shape in sync with their surroundings ultimately forge a powerful relationship with the environment, thus yielding timeless architecture. In particular, the use of natural stone as a building material, due to its durability and sense of longevity, has allowed many a structure to live on for centuries. This long life, coupled with the fact such homes have been passed down from one generation to the next, has lead to a rich cultural accumulation.

The centuries-old huts of Trulli in Italy and homes of Old Datça in Turkey represent two examples of how natural stone as a local material can be utilized in dissimilar ways. Both examples consist of units that can be articulated, for it is they that provide the dwellers most fundamental of needs. Thus, sustainability a key feature of traditional architecture has been achieved by ensuring both the continuity and the improvement of both the material and building units.

While both samples feature natural stone, there are differences in the way the material has been bonded. The Old Datça houses have clay and/or adobe roofs built using the same bonding technique as the walls, with mortar. The Trulli huts, on the other hand, have conical roofs built atop limestone walls using dry masonry. Although traditional settlements by and large share similar climatic contexts and are generally built using similar materials, different construction techniques and different types are what gives each settlement a one of a kind character and soul.

The huts of Trulli, unlike their Old Datça cousins, can easily be dismantled when necessary because none of the stones are bonded with any sort of mortar, a result of the conditions of the era during which they were built. Their distinct conic forms play an important role in moulding the town’s silhouette thanks to a building technique that adds an almost ephemeral dimension to a material otherwise thought of as permanent. In contrast, the houses of Old Datça houses continue to exist as a whole within nature, without making themselves overly visible. This in turn does not allow them to impose themselves over the Datça skyline.