Cycladic architectural scenery – A gift from Metaxas?

The most characteristic feature of Cycladic architecture is the colors: blue and white are the dominating colors in all the islands of the archipelago.

According to the nationalist myth, the reason goes back to the time of the Ottoman occupation: Greeks were forbidden to fly their (blue and white) flag, so as an act of defiance they painted their houses blue and white.

Myths aside, the real reason why they are painted blue and white is because of successive goverment regulations starting with Metaxas in the 1930s.

In fact, centuries earlier, houses were not painted at all. The Aegean was crammed with pirates, so the inhabitants of the islands left their houses unpainted, at the color of the vernacular stone, so that they blended better with the landscape and were harder to see in pirate raids.

However, in the 19th century, with the pirates long gone and the Ottomans cast away, the islanders favored color for their unpainted houses and houses in the Cyclades began to be painted in vivacious colors such as ochre yellow, red earth or cobalt blue.

As one can expect, the result was, as the Greek word has it, kaleidoscopic. In a deliberate attempt to bring visual order and aesthetic uniformity and influenced by the Avantgarde movement and architects like Le Corbusier, dictator Ioannis Metaxas passed a decree in 1936 by which all houses in the Cyclades should be painted white and blue.

As the architect Mrs Maria Kavagia mentions in this article, “Metaxas’s law forced all houses to have white body and blue door and windows”. These colours match the Greek flag as well as the blue sky and the white wave foams of Greece’s seas. These two colours are also used for churches, as the walls are painted white and the domes are blue.

A second reason for Metaxas ordering all the island’s houses to be washed with lime was to protect themselves from the cholera that plagued Greece at the time. Lime was considered to be the most disinfectant, since chlorine was still not widespread back then.

So the charactersitic ‘white and blue’ Cycladic color scheme is relatively modern, having been introduced by Metaxas in the 1930s. Three decades later, the Junta of the Colonels (1967-1974) continued to issue regulations in the same direction.

So in a nutshell, one could claim that in some way, one of the most popular images of Greece’s tourism -the white houses of the Cyclades- is a legacy of Ioannis Metaxas…


– Andreas Markessinis