Clerestory and Intervisibility in Minoan Architecture

During our visit to the Providence Public Library, the architectural tour guide spoke in depth about the function and history of the clerestory windows in the grand main hall, which served as the original circulation and receiving room of the library. Not only are the semicircular shapes elegant and aesthetically pleasing, I was also really impressed by the amount of natural light these windows collectively brought into the room—even considering that half of them are blocked off by the later addition to the building on the Empire Street side. This serves to complement the ornateness of the coffered ceilings and molding. Indeed, the tour guide mentioned that the combined effect of the clerestory windows and the architectural detailing is so visually impactful that the raised threshold leading into the grand hall had to be ground down because people were so distracted by what lay before them as they entered the building that they would trip over it!

The clerestory windows are shown in the context of the grand hall in the cover image, and below, Figure 1 is a closer view of one of the nonfunctional, blocked clerestory windows.

In my post from last week, I discussed the ingenuity of Minoan structural engineering which enabled grand, enduring architectural impacts that have stood the test of time. Clairy Palyvou, a leading Minoan scholar, proposes that a general style of “openness and mutability” in Minoan Crete in fact led to the development of this strong, earthquake-resistant building technology (Palyvou 2017). In this post I will focus on this general theme or “stimulus” of openness: I was especially inspired by the impressive impact of the clerestory windows at PPL, and to my surprise my research into Minoan architectural design has revealed that they had a similar approach to creating effective light sources and a visual dialogue within their palatial buildings.

A clerestory is a section of a wall sitting above eye-level containing windows to let in light and fresh air while providing a sense of grandeur and elevation to the space. It turns out that Minoan architecture devised a similar organization of space called the “pier-and-opening partition” where clerestory was combined with open doorways to allow for “flexible boundaries, fluidity of movement, intervisibility, and a variety of intercommunication options” (Palyvou 2017, 252). This system is depicted below in Figure 2, reproduced from Palyvou 2017, Fig. 3.

I’m glad that this “pier-and-opening partition” system is so well-documented in the literature, because I definitely want to include in my palace design, and this will enable me to be highly accurate in my adaptation of it to my palace design. Also, I was previously concerned about addressing how dark each level would be when working in a three-story design seen at Akrotiri, but this system assuaged this concern and, if included in multiple levels, will help provide additional visual permeability and light access to the palace.

I’m really excited about including this unique architectural element in my palace design and also am curious to see more rigorously (rather than intuitively in my head) how it will play out for the viewsheds within my palace. Hopefully I can get the technology to cooperate and create a relative visibility plot like Max Peers’ in Pompeiian villas, and I expect that this will bolster my interpretation of the impact of this element in the design.

-Aidan O’Shea


Palyvou, C. (2017) “An architectural style of openness and mutability as stimulus for the development of an earthquake-resistant building technology at Akrotiri, Thera, and Minoan Crete,” In S. Jusseret and M. Sintubin (eds.) Minoan Earthquakes: Breaking the Myth through Interdisciplinarity. 249-265. Leuven: Leuven University Press.