Architecture of the Cyclades

1. Introduction

Geographically the Cyclades occupy the central zone of the Aegean Archipelago. Their name derives from the word “kyklos” (circle) that best describes the general arrangement of this insular group: their circular disposition around the centre and position of this centre in reality and symbolically. The importance of the centre has since antiquity been focused on the sanctity of Delos, as if the Cyclades’ special light radiates from the sanctuary of Apollo, the god of light.

2. Particularities of the architecture of the Cyclades

In the architectural and the urban organization of space, the Cyclades present strong local particularities and in the same time common archetypal attributes. The variability of the forms is based on the diverse historical fortune of each island, the activities of its population, its geological and geophysical particularities and the richness of its land. Furthermore, this variability is also intensified by the Cyclades’ division in semi-autonomous worlds surrounded, isolated but also united by the sea that defines them. The waters of the Aegean with their different attributes, a mean of creative communication but also a source of danger have always played a capital role in the flourishing or the decline of the islands. In the same time, the islands’ cohesive shape, the short distance between them and the mainland, their mild geography and their climatic conditions have always consisted a common starting point.

Architecture and topography have always followed the circles of history and fortune, inventing and evolving means to serve human needs. Despite their evident relative characteristics, almost every island of the Cyclades preserves, protects and develops something particular that is not to be seen anywhere else. In brief, we could mention some of the most characteristic examples: the subterranean dugout dwellings of Santorini and the development of the villages on the edges of the volcanic crater, the tower-houses in Naxos’ hinterland, the pigeon houses and the traditional marble workmanship in Naxos, the tile-covered Chores of Kythnos and Kea, the castle-shaped settlements of Antiparos, Folegandros and Sifnos, the neoclassical Ermoupolis, the dense cubistic settlement of Mykonos, the seven settlements complex that consist the Chora on the inner plateau of Sifnos, the rows of windmills at Ioulida and Paros, the monastery of Chozoviotissa, attached on the rock of Amorgos, the Ekatontapyliani at Paros, the wires at Milos, the industrial buildings at Serifos and finally Dilos and Keros with their great archaeological significance.

3. Traditional architecture of the Cyclades

The earliest settlements in the Cyclades were built on the shores and they were succeeded by others, fortified ones, during the Mycenaean period. This circle was repeated when the piratical raids led people again to the abandonment of the coastal settlements and the creation of new, fortified ones during the Venetian occupation. The habitation units inside the densely built, fortified settlements of the Venetian period had the smallest possible dimensions. The lack of space led to the building of houses, usually with two floors, with a narrow front, the same dimensions approximately and the same plan in a row. Houses themselves created the fortification enclosure of the settlement. Their ground floor was usually long and rectangular, with a successive passing from one room to another. The entrance to the upper floor was made via an inner staircase, while the owner of each lever was usually different. The institution of floor-ownership was very important, since the owner of the ground floor was also the owner of the land and the foundations, while the owner of the upper floor owned the air of the same dwelling.

Meanwhile, isolated tower-houses appeared in the islands’ countryside from the 13th century onwards, occupied by landlords and nobles. Pigeon houses started being constructed then also, pigeon breeding being a privilege reserved for the aristocracy. The fortification character of the tower-houses served to protect its owners but also their vassals from the surrounding fields in times of raids. Finally, during the last three centuries the type of the plain farmhouse is developed in the countryside.

3. 1. Geomorphologic factors

The special geomorphology, the mild climate and the intense occupation of the people with outdoors activities gave the simple buildings of the countryside the possibility to evolve in important architectural units. The buildings –initially rectangular volumes of small dimensions- are harmonized and assimilated by their natural environment by taking advantage of all the possibilities offered by the land in the same time. They are developed in niches, between rocks to save material, they use cavities as water tanks and storage space and they are protected by the wind and the rain. It is as if they grow up from the land.

Buildings expand in the countryside, isolated or organized in loose farm complexes, which occasionally form settlements. Their basic material is mainly local, since the transportation from far away is difficult and costly. It is stone for the masonry, quarried even from the same piece of land, scarce wood for the roof and the small openings, stepped ground from the beds of nearby streams for the floors and roofs.

3. 2. The buildings

Rudimentary, small buildings of the secular traditional architecture have great similarities with the ones of the prehistoric settlements that are being revealed in excavations on the same islands. The analogies in spaces, the arrangement of the free spaces, the storage niches, the small heights, correspond to the fundamental needs of everyday life.

The type of the simple farmhouse, with its roots in the depths of time, has slowly and steadily evolved, enriched by the “modern” elements of each period, to serve the basic function of living. The secondary functions of the dwelling, in combination with the local activities and needs of the inhabitants, have created edifices with special functions that have been attached to the central farmhouse: buildings for the household animals, stables, storehouses for the harvest and the wine, buildings for the processing of the products of the land, windmills, watermills and threshing-floors. With limited means, with the absolutely essential material and great fatigue, these secondary edifices, although dedicated to auxiliary functions, continue to prove the building genius, the aesthetic and sensitiveness in relation to the natural environment.

The archetypal farmhouse of the Cyclades had the ability to adapt itself according to its needs and its environment without losing its noble qualities. The vernacular architecture of the Cyclades, the image of the simple geometric volumes glittering in the light, has become a reference point for modern architecture. During the international conference of architecture of C.I.A.M. that was held in Athens in 1933, foreign visitors and representatives of the revolutionary architecture of modernism had the chance to meet and appreciate the architecture of the Cyclades.

4. Later architecture

During the 19th century, the new social and economic conditions were transplanted in architecture with the creation of new urban and architectural forms. The prosperity, the turn towards seamanship, the cosmopolitan models, the migration flow, led to new aesthetic quests and novelties. The Cycladic rich mansions are specimens of this period. They are characterized by their larger scale, the adding of monumentality and a classicistic idiom.

4. 1. The buildings

Mansions are built either inside the settlements or out in the countryside. Inside the settlements the mansions gather and display the objects their owners –mainly occupied with nautical professions or merchants- brought back from their trips: decorative objects, furniture. The houses often themselves are imitations of houses or facades of foreign lands. The notable mansions often form neighbourhoods in certain parts of the settlements.

In the countryside they dominate their land, a reminiscent of the prestige of the tower-houses of the Venetian period, but without their fortification character, since that was no longer necessary.

4. 2. Public architecture

Public space in the Cyclades is of small scale. Usually the road plays also the role of the square, the piatsa. The public space neighbours the private space and enters ingenuously and with simplicity in it. Protruding roofs, passages, irregular plateaus, niches and stairs create a unique touring experience in the Cycladic settlements. Function and aesthetics are present and are bound together by the less acts possible. It is admirable how profound and friendly the economy of space is, as well as how public space in its most modern expression cannot assimilate and express similar examples.

5. Modern architecture

Modern architecture in the Cyclades, although very intense, seems to be subjected to an urban architectural culture. Tourist development and the people’s need of a second country house have largely secured the survival of the islands, but at the same time moves constantly and dangerously to a point of satiation and abuse. The efforts made towards a modern architecture that can stand next to the built landscape of the Cyclades are of course important, but marginal. Building –consciously- in the Cyclades is like building next to a dangerous and wise being. Therefore the distance from it should be neither too big nor too small, with boldness and understanding, with reference to the essence and not the surface.

The architect Aris Konstantinidis, a conscious modernist, but at the same time a sensitive student of the anonymous architecture, said that the architect should be taught the principles of composition and not how to copy forms. He, totally consistent with his beliefs, resisted to the commonly acceptable way of architectural creation in the Cyclades. In his hotel architecture, mostly at the “Xenia” hotels he built, he refused to accept and incorporate in his proposals fake traditional models. His propositions still stand, rather misunderstood, but always serious and “futuristic”.