PolyCatOikia – Unité de la Cohabitation
A project by Emilio Koutsoftides & Gabor Stark. Pafos, Cyprus 2017
Here some photographs of our completed – and inhabited! – public art project for PAFOS 2017. Together with the other six installations of the SECOND NATURE project the object will remain in the Municipal Garden in the Ktima district for the duration of the European Capital of Culture programme.
SECOND NATURE – PAFOS 2017 European Capital of Culture
- Andreas Tsappas, timber
- Charalambos Komodros, steel
- Multibuild Ltd., concrete
With special thanks to
- The whole artistic team and all volunteers at PAFOS 2017
- Valentinos Stefanou, curator of the SECOND NATURE project
- Christian Naydenov & Konstantinos Karseras for the additional animal photography
- Margaret Paraskos, Cyprus College of Art
- Costas Koutsoftides, Koutsoftides Architects
The installation presents a man-made habitat for the four-legged residents of the Municipal Garden in Pafos: the stray cats of Ktima. The project interprets the culture-nature relationship addressed in the SECOND NATURE brief by focusing on the human-feline cohabitation in Cyprus – an interspecies bond, which can be traced back as far as the 10th millennium B.C.
The form of the modular structure references modern abstract art as well as the key architectural typologies dominating the urban fabric of contemporary Pafos: the hotel complexes along the coast and the ubiquitous building type of the polykatoikia. From the perspective of a human visitor the perception of the object fluctuates between minimal sculpture, the scale model of a building and a piece of public furniture. The local cats however, immediately recognize the potential of comfort, shade and shelter as well as the chance of being admired – and being catered for – by their human friends.
The PolyCatOikia operates like a hotel resort – only for cats. It features fourteen semi-enclosed private suites, so-called Cat Flats, plus four communal restaurants, or Feeding Loggias. The complex comes all-inclusive with an open-plan ‘Bikini-level’ on the fourth storey and a roof terrace-cum-viewing platform for the cats’ favourite activities of sunbathing, being lazy and on top of things. The modularity of the quasi-architectural structure is balanced by the meandering circulation system of kitten-safe ramps, bridges and balconies, allowing for manifold catwalks and choreographies.
Staffed by human visitors, who come along to treat the residents to food, or to simply watch and enjoy their feline grace, the PolyCatOikia forms a cultural habitat for cat and man alike, or free after Le Corbusier: an Unité de la Cohabitation.
Historic Context: The Legend of Saint Nicholas of the Cats
“It is wonderful to see them, for nearly all are maimed by the snakes: one has lost a nose, another an ear; the skin of one is torn, another is lame; one is blind of one eye, another of both. And it is a strange thing that at the hour for their food, at the sound of a bell, they collect at the monastery and when they have eaten enough, at the sound of that same bell, they all depart together to go fight the snakes.”
The Venetian Francesco Suriano on visiting Cyprus in 1484
“In 328 A.D., St. Helena visited the island of Cyprus and found it almost totally deserted of most of its inhabitants. This abandonment was a result of a severe and prolonged drought that had last for 36 years. St. Helena’s ship landed at the site of the future monastery of St. Nicholas and found the area swarming with poisonous snakes. She decided to help rejuvenate the island of Cyprus and upon her return to Constantinople, she arranged for an entire shipload of cats to be sent to the area where her ship had first landed to devour the poisonous snakes. St. Helena also reported the dismal state of the island to Emperor Constantine and he appointed Duke Kalokeros as the new Governor of Cyprus. Duke Kalokeros was mandated or required to revive and encourage people to return to Cyprus. It was during this revival period that the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats was constructed. According to legend the monks of the Monastery of St. Nicholas are to feed the cats a little meat morning and evening each day so that they cats would not continually consume the poison of the snakes. In 1983 nuns revived the Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats after many years of neglect. The monastery is again swarming with cats which are said to be descended from those brought to the island by St. Helena.”
Source: Centre for Middle Eastern Studies / cmes.arizona.edu
Natural-Cultural Context: The Cats of Cyprus
The relationship between humans and cats in Cyprus goes back in time far further than the legend of Saint Nicholas. In 2004, a Neolithic burial ground was excavated in Shillourokambos, containing both a human and a feline skeleton, laid close to one another. The grave is estimated to be 9,500 years old, preceding the ancient Egyptian civilisation, which until recently was commonly believed to be the origin of the domestication of cats.
Today however, Cyprus and Pafos are more famous for their feral and stray cats. Escaped from domesticity, colonies of cats populate hotel complexes, restaurant terraces, public parks, abandoned buildings and other urban niches. The cats have become part of the local vernacular and of the touristic branding of Pafos. The PolyCatoikia project alludes to, and raises awareness for the historical as well as contemporary, the natural as well as cultural ecologies of this man-animal coexistence.
Second Nature: Economic Ecology
In recent years, a correlation between the difficult socioeconomic situation in Cyprus and the growing population of stray cats has occurred. When the economic crisis hit the island, public funding for the sterilisation of stray animals was cut drastically. The resulting growing number of cats put animal shelters under pressure and local animal rights activists became concerned by the rising number of poisonings and acts of cruelty against cats. “The problem is people don’t have money anymore to make it to the end of the month, so they can’t provide for their cats or much less sterilise them”. (Source: ANSAmed)
The same economic climate led to an increased urban deprivation in many Cypriot places including Pafos and especially Ktima. Together with a change of local housing and retail patterns these transformation processes resulted in a growing number of vacant buildings, closed down shops and the general decline of public urban spaces. Made worse by a long-lasting legal dispute, the Municipal Garden fell into a state of disuse and neglect. The following stanza by the poet Kostis Palamas presents a quite apt description of the current state of the park:
I returned to my golden playgrounds,
I returned to see the wondrous palace,
Built just for me by love’s divine ways.
Blackberry bushes now cover the boyhood trail,
And the midday suns have burned the playgrounds,
And a tremor has destroyed my palace so rare.
The seven Second Nature installations aim to revitalise the park and to restore the community’s pride of its civic spaces. The PolyCatOikia project aims to contribute to this culture-led, urban and natural regeneration process. By providing a habitat for animals as a cultural attractor for humans, it catalyses the care of the local community for its urban environment and its feline population: “A place that looks after its cats looks after itself.” And vice versa.
Location + Curation: Community & Cultural Events
Placed parallel to the 25th of March Street the linear structure acts as visual filter between the street and the centre of the park. Located amid the trees next to the existing footpath, and in proximity to the restaurants across the street and to the statue of Kostis Palama, the structure is easily accessible and visible from both the heart and the southern perimeter of the park.
Together with the other six installations the project attracts old and new, local as well as international visitors to the Municipal Garden and acts as a stage for community events, cultural and educational activities. With the cat residents as the protagonists, the sculptural object demarcates a place that can be used for local history and storytelling events, cultural and natural science talks, drawing and poetry workshops, and other formats that bring together different age groups, Pafians and tourists, animal lovers and the arts community at the same time.
Together with the other six installations of the SECOND NATURE project the object will remain in the Municipal Garden in the Ktima district for the duration of the PAFOS 2017 European Capital of Culture programme.
Epilogue: MY CATS
I know. I know.
they are limited, have different
but I watch and learn from them.
I like the little they know,
which is so
they complain but never
they walk with a surprising dignity.
they sleep with a direct simplicity that
humans just can’t
their eyes are more
beautiful than our eyes.
and they can sleep 20 hours
when I am feeling
all I have to do is
watch my cats
I study these
they are my
Poem by Charles Bukowski