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Greece – Cycladic Architecture

Greece – Cycladic Architecture

Cycladic architecture is famous for its uniqueness and charm. In fact, the rapid growth of tourism over recent years has extended its reputation well beyond the borders of Greece. When you visit a Cycladic town or village for the first time, you may have the feeling that you are inside an enchanting stage set.

The early Cycladic builders worked in the same simple yet daring style that distinguished the artists who created Cycladic idols some 5,000 years ago. With the authentic and untainted instinct of folk artists, these craftsmen constructed buildings that were adapted not only to the everyday needs of the inhabitants, but also to the beauty and grace of the Cycladic landscape.

One rarely comes across public squares in Cycladic villages. Public spaces in settlements are, as a rule, quite small. The common area is usually the street, with its exceptionally well-balanced building facades.

The street is characteristically paved with whitewash-outlined polygonal or rectangular flagstones. The pattern of the flagstones is usually adapted to fit along the outsides of the buildings, which are of two main styles: narrow-facade (“stenometopo”) and broad-facade (“evrymetopo”). Buildings in the same cluster or on the same block are most likely to be in the same style, with similar features. Therefore, a row of narrow-facade houses will have approximately the same dimensions and the same design. The houses usually have two storeys, with an outside staircase that allows separate access to the upper storey from the street.

The outside staircase exists regardless of whether the house is used as a single-family dwelling or two separate families individually own the ground floor and upper storey.

Separate ownership of individual floors is a popular tradition in the Cyclades, dating centuries back. It apparently started because of the lack of space within the fortified settlements that were built in the latter part of the 14th century when the islands first became settlements. Later, however, separate-storey ownership continued even after the pirate incursions had abated (mostly following the Battle of Lepanto in 1571), with the settlements then able to spread beyond the walls. Although the main reason for this is that it served the institution of the dowry, separate-storey ownership satisfied other needs as well, In Mykonos, for example, peasants who went to Hora (the Town) to sell their wares and do their marketing wanted storage spaces and rudimentary shelter. So, they purchased these ground floors from the locals.

The exteriors of Cycladic buildings are simple and unembellished, whitewashed, with only a few windows and a particular type of roof, which comes in three variations: vaulted, inclined, or pitched. For the most part, Cycladic houses resemble connected stark-white cubes.

Perched on cliff-sides, with an economy of space ensured by native ingenuity, these single or two-storeyed houses blend with church facades, fountains, windmills (where they exist) and dovecotes to compose pictures seen nowhere else in the world.

Buildings that form a compact mass, irregularly aligned houses, an economic use of curves, and walls that subtly slant out towards the ground to give the impression that the building is growing out of the island’s stark rocky ground, flagstone stairs rimmed in white to diminish their weight. When you add the painted doors (typically, the cobalt blue of the sea), windows and balconies, which contrast the stark white houses, you have the complete picture of Cycladic architecture.

But this is only the general picture. Each island has its own unique characteristics, determined by its history and topography, as well as by how the local materials have been utilized.

The interior of the houses is also similar, with only minor variations from island to island. The inside space is divided into two unequal sections by a kind of platform, 1-2 meters high and up to 3 meters wide, extending either the length or width of the house. This platform is called, alternately, “krevatos” (bed), “kraatos” or “sofas” (couch) depending on the locale. The furnishings, which are impressive for their aesthetics refinement and usefulness, are in total harmony with the decoration and architecture of the house. The interior decor consists of small cabinets, the “stamnos” (water jug) stand, trunks to store clothing, wardrobes, icon stands, wooden-carved chests, as well as a variety of furniture built into the walls.

This is often combined with pebble-paved front yards (particularly on Milos and Paros, as well as other islands), which add particular grace to the otherwise stark but always harmonious constructions of Aegean island vernacular architecture.