Once upon a time, Mykonos was filled with castles to protect itself from thieves and pirates. With streets narrow enough to deter pirates from looting the towns and little houses built one atop of the other for the exact same reason, Mykonos has some pretty imposing architecture to showcase.
Back then, the scarcity of basic building materials forced the creation of small houses while their cubic shape and distinct white color were in reaction to the unique weather conditions. The square formations protected the houses from the strong Meltemi winds. As for the white-washed walls, they provided a shield against the scorching temperatures by minimizing the absorption of heat from the walls while, at the same time, allowing the eye to follow the undulation of the surfaces and seeing the shapes as a union. All that takes place in Mykonos Town or Chora, as the locals call it.
Rural Mykonos has something different to demonstrate. Simple, plain cottages, with cell-like rooms and shaded patios nestled amidst vast fields, each adorned with pens for livestock, a well, a water cistern, a winepress, a wood-fired oven, and in several cases, a small chapel, all built with an incredible, in-depth knowledge of the concept of space, where every little cube is so correctly oriented and beautifully placed in just the right part of the surrounding field, completing what is known as the Greek farmhouse. The idea was to have a house big enough to fit in and own a field just as far as you can see. Seems that these people had captured the very essence of life, where one’s wealth was not demonstrated by the size of their house. Instead, people’s riches were coming from the simple, ordinary, everyday things and the pleasure of enjoying what Mother Nature offered in great abundance in this Mediterranean spot.
Inspiring Landscape & Artistic Uniqueness
Many architects tried to impose their vision on Mykonos’ powerful landscape and bend nature to their ultimate advantage. They failed miserably. But, those that did adjust to the natural pre-existing landscape conditions did manage to create structures in total alignment with the island’s pulsing heart and overall feel were able to taste what simple intelligence means. Everything here is thought down to the last detail. Take, for example, the fact that the Mykonians shielded their houses from the tough north winds by situating them with their backs turned to the north. This means that you could stand on the front veranda of an old house on a windy day and be totally protected!
Speaking of uniqueness, we could not leave Paraportiani out. Declared a significant monument for its one-of-the-kind architecture, the two-level cluster of five churches comprises a distinct feature of the island. It owes its name to the fact that it is built next to the northwest gate of Mykonos’ Middle Age fortification, which translates as “paraporti” in Greek. Its eastern facade completes this unique complex artistically with the small, arched bell tower and speaks loudly of the Cycladic castles’ architecture.
As for the windmills, these were once a powerful component of the island’s economic prosperity. Today, it is a much-photographed Mykonos trademark; a proud reminder of the good times gone but not forgotten.
Eco-Friendliness at its Best
The buildings in Mykonos island blend seamlessly with the environment, showing utmost respect to the land in a totally eco-friendly way. The flat roofs were traditionally insulated with seaweed and sand. Small openings in the northern sides of the houses eliminate humidity and thermal loads. The smooth asymmetrical shapes on the corners of every single traditional construction are there for a reason. External shady areas with dense foliage and stone walls achieve cooling. Nothing is coincidental here, including the distribution of the dwellings’ volumes in relation to the direction of the winds and their exposure to them. Different heights, recesses, interior yards, a varying types of semi-open spaces, like alcoves and verandas all play a vital role.
But, something new and exciting happened in the more modern years, when the architectural committee decided to give permission to build houses that were not white, in very specific cases. After architect Dimitris Mantikas presented them with research which proved that a large white house up on a hill would detract from its surroundings and look ostentatious, the committee gave the green light to construct non-white hilltop houses (i.e. built from rock, which blend in so perfectly that they almost disappear into the hill). It was the same architect that also designed and established the double walls that brought much of the shapes of the old farmhouses, which have contributed in keeping the traditional Cycladic style and architecture alive.
From those times long ago to the impressive villas with the invigorating private pools sitting atop every little hillside, much has changed and evolved, driven by the needs of the day. Throughout the centuries, we have seen new elements being added to what we call today traditional Cycladic character. The house, transformed from a dwelling whose role was to satisfy the basic needs of those living in it, into a vessel to serve luxurious holidays.
We now see building constructed with contemporary materials that the architects of old would have never built. A not at all typical of Cycladic architecture, yet indeed very unique corner of Mykonos is the location called Little Venice, situated between Alefkadra and the centre of the old Castle. The sea-washed (literally!) houses there are painted in vibrant colours and are decorated with wooden open-air balconies.
Nevertheless, Mykonos never lost its charm and uniqueness. In fact, the island is legally classified as one of natural, distinctive beauty since 2005, with dry earth patches, round rocks, and little chapels with red-arched roofs scattered all around creating a dreamland.
All in all, Mykonos may be an island of loud manifestations of richness but it has managed to keep the traditional Cycladic building principles and shapes devoid of modernity and excess thanks to the urban planning laws and the respect architects show to the land and its history.
The colourful crowds that flock the island of Mykonos every summer can still see the remains of the once glorious castles that once stood like restless guards over the Mykonians, in places like Portes and Lino. The whitewashed, flat-roofed, cubic houses with the flowered balconies and their wooden windows and doors painted in all shades of the Aegean blue, look like a cluster of white grapes, and welcome guests with the warmth of the glaring Mediterranean sun and a maze of paved narrow alleys, crystal clear waters, and golden beaches that enchant.