Coastal living, the greek edition: key features of greek island homes

Oh, the dream of coastal living! Raise your hand if you have a secret or not so secret dream of living by the sea someday (don’t hate me, I’m already there). For some, coastal living is the key to their happiness and even if this may sound like an overstatement, no one will deny that living by the sea is good for our soul.

As a subcategory of Mediterranean style, greek island style is the one that immediately brings to mind sunny days, blue waters and endless summer.

I’m sure the picture is familiar to you.

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Whitewashed cubes stacked on sun-drenched rock cliffs, usually overlooking the big blue or spread along Cycladic seashores, with small splashes of blue here and there. Chances are you’ve stumbled upon some photo of Mykonos or Santorini or any other greek island on Pinterest on a cold rainy morning while working and wished you could hop on a plane and get there as soon as possible.

Can’t blame you.

Cycladic architecture at its best in Mykonos of the fifties before the tourists came.

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Greek island style with its simplicity and beauty is extremely appealing and one of the reasons the greek islands are a dream summer travel destination for people all over the world.

But what makes greek style houses so charming and an endless source of inspiration when it comes to home décor?  Is it the white against the blue, the simple life it evokes, the promise of careless summer vacation by the sea? Is it the human scale, the sense of balance and the absolute respect to the landscape and nature?

There are a few thousand islands in Greece, with more than two hundred of them being inhabited. Different historical, social and economic circumstances lead to the development of various architectural styles, all charming and remarkable. “Greek island style” could mean a dozen different things. But the most iconic and famous type of greek home is the Cycladic one. What is generally referred to as “greek island style” is in fact the Cycladic architecture, which is the kind of architecture you’ll find on the Cyclades, the island complex in the heart of the Aegean sea which forms a circle (a kyclos in greek, thus the name) around the ancient sacred island of Delos.

Suppose you went on an island-hopping trip to the Cyclades. You would soon find out that not all of the settlements look the same throughout the Cyclades. There are common features for sure but from one island to the other there are also differences and variations that will surprise pleasantly whoever visits them. Don’t assume that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all!

So, in general terms, how does a typical greek island house of the Cyclades look like and what are the features that make it so special? (Take notes in case that daydream of owning the perfect summer house comes true).

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Simplicity

Simplicity is the number one feature of greek island style. Simplicity is also one of the things that attracts us to coastal living, right? Greek island houses are usually humble residences built in past centuries by the poor inhabitants of the Cyclades. In those past times, people didn’t care about making their homes look beautiful. They just wanted to protect themselves from the wind, the cold, the heat and the pirates and they had to do it with what was available. They didn’t have endless choices of materials to choose from, they had to make do with whatever their land gave them and often built their homes with their own hands.

 

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Human scale

You won’t find anything extravagant here. The volumes are small and follow the landscape. A traditional greek island house takes only the necessary space. It is a small, one-room, rectangular, one or two-storey building with an exterior stairway and a tiny balcony. If it has a small yard, it may include a stone-built oven and tank to collect rainwater. Very narrow cobblestone alleys connect the small houses.

 

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White walls


Limewashed to reflect the harsh summer sun but also for sanitization – don’t forget that in past times epidemics were usual.

There’s a big discussion going on about the original color of greek island houses. It seems that not all Cycladic settlements were white in earlier years, there were islands with houses colored with earthy colors like ochre, terracotta but also pink and light blue. The limewashing was decided by the Greek government of 1938 as a means to protect the public health from the contagious diseases of that time. 

These walls were built with local stone. The stone was usually plastered but in some cases not totally covered but partially exposed. The walls were very thick, 0.60cm to 1m, as a way to keep the heat and cold outside.

 

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Colorful doors and windows

The predominant color is blue, but there is also gray, red, green, yellow, pink. Against the white walls they look even brighter.

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 Arches

Arches are a common feature of the mediterranean style. In a greek island house you’ll find them inside the house, above the windows or for extra support in larger rooms. Since the available beams were no longer than three meters, arches were needed to construct larger spaces.  Also in the public space, arches connect two houses and form passages and covered areas.

 

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Minimal beauty and plasticity

Cubic volumes cramped one next to the other or stacked one on top of the other following the morphology of the ground in a geometry game without a plan but surprisingly with an incomparable aesthetic outcome. Curves, rounded corners, surfaces that look like they are made of soft clay, lines that flow and unite the small houses in one harmonious whole.  Slightly inclined walls help the cubic volumes adapt even better in the environment.

 

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Inside the plain interior, curvy built-in beds, sofas and alcoves with stone slab shelves for storage, result in clean, uncluttered, relaxing interiors. The wooden furniture is simple without intricate details. 

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Small windows

Greek island houses had small openings to be protected by the sun, the strong winds of the Aegean and the cold. Many of them have a small window on the north side for cooling during summer.

 

Flat or arched rooftops are a feature of greek island style.

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Flat or arched rooftops

Underneath, exposed beams hold the roof which is made of wooden planks or canes.

 

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Stone floors

Floors are made of stone slabs of gray color, as stone exists in abundance.

Often the outline of the slabs is painted to enhance their shape. Other times the slabs are decorated with simple paintings of flowers, birds, etc.  Alternatively, floors are made either of a special traditional mix of sand and earthy powders (tsimentokonia in greek) with great durability or wide wooden planks.   

 

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Imperfection and organic forms

Forget about perfectly straight lines, absolute symmetry and sleekness. Uneven plastered surfaces, rough textures, natural materials are some of the elements that give a greek island house its special character.

 

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 Eco-friendliness and sustainability

The inhabitants of the Cyclades respected the environment and used wisely the natural resources. They collected precious rainwater in cisterns for the dry months, used the stones that occurred from the excavation of the site in which they built their home itself, insulated their roofs with pumice, algae and gravel. Not enough wood? They went for built-in furniture. And so much energy was saved since all the materials were local and they didn’t have to transfer them from far away.

Greek island houses were usually of southeast orientation in order to take advantage of natural light as much as possible and protect themselves from the strong north wind of the Aegean.

Modern societies would have done so much better if they had copied even a little of their way living, don’t you think?

 

Of course all the above are the typical features of the Cycladic architecture found in traditional settlements. The transition from the minimalist Cycladic houses to their modern evolution happens smoothly. Contemporary architects reinterpret the greek island style in their own way and combine it with modern design resulting in the construction of some of the most amazing holiday residences that keep their authenticity and local character but at the same time comply with the standards of modern life.

 

At the end of the day, greek island style is something more than an architectural and decorating style. Everything that makes coastal living a dream for many, simplicity, authenticity, the beauty that’s hidden in the essential, can be found in this style. And together with the sun, the sea, the food and the people it is the reason why the Cyclades seem like the ideal holiday destination for so many of us.

 

So what do you think about greek island style? Do you like it? Which characteristic of this style do you find most interesting? Would you ever consider to draw inspiration from it in order to decorate your summer house? A primary residence maybe? I’d love to read what you think in the comments.

If you want to dive deeper into this unique architectural and decorative style, here’s a list of interesting links:

Examples of Cycladic architecture, old and new.

An enlightening article about what makes the mykonian architecture so unique.

Apart from the famous Mykonos and Santorini, there are many Cycladic islands with picturesque villages like Kastro of Folegandros, and Aegiali and Lagada in Anafi.

Example of the curvy Cycladic houses in Emporio, Santorini.

A reinterpretation of the Cycladic architecture in modern times.

Sustainability in Santorini’s architecture.

Photo gallery of architecture in Serifos, another greek island quite close to Athens.

Tones of Cycladic bliss in this Instagram account I follow. I love the way this guy captures all the beautiful details that make greek island style what it is.