Color as a compositional element of modern architecture in Greece ― 

In her research project at the Technical University of Crete, Amalia Matiatou studied the contribution of color in the reception of modern architecture in Greece. During the 1930ies and 60ies, an exceptionally creative generation of local architects perceived modern architecture as an “import”, mostly through black and white photographs. In collaborations between architects and artists, color was employed as a device for “integrating” modern sensibilities into the country’s physical and cultural landscape. The research, digitized in the open-access database of the Technical University of Crete, was supervised by Prof. Amalia Kotsaki. This is an abstract presenting the main assumptions and research finds, illustrated with digitized archival material whose physical documents are held at the Benaki Museum, Modern Greek Architecture Archives.

Presently, the use of color is not associated to any deeper need for a symbolic, subjective, or rational interpretation; color is neither employed for highlighting the geometry of a building’s components. The examples of vivid color schemes in architecture are scarce and color is mostly used for illustrating an aesthetic statement.

However, since prehistoric times, color has fulfilled both aesthetic and social needs; it features prominently in most of architectural history, with the exception of the modern movement, where lack of color was consistent with the theories of specific pioneers, such as Adolf Loos, who argued that a well-designed building does not need color. Even within the modern movement, however, as a reaction to the domination of white, there are plenty of prominent examples of color in architecture. From its early stages, the Bauhaus school gives exceptional importance to color, pursuing an architectural space that integrates architecture, painting and sculpture. In the context of Greek nature, color does not work independently from light; the intense Greek sun requires color so that surfaces are not blinding, either preferring the natural color of bare materials, such as grey in exposed concrete, ochres in stone, or color coating.

The formal introduction of modern architecture in Greece, seeing the first experimentations with color, took place during the interwar period (1930-40) and, post-war, during the 1950ies and 60ies. Most interwar architects, even though receptive to modern trends, were rather conventional and predictable in incorporating those features. However, certain architects deviated from the norm, like Dimitri Pikionis, Nikos Mitsakis and Kyriacos Panagiotakos. In the post-war era, color replaces the old, “regal”, off-white. This period too, features pioneering architects in the use of color who are not afraid of experimentation in their work. Those include Nikos Valsamakis, Constantinos Decavallas, Yannis Liapis and Dimitris Fatouros. Concurrently, there is evidence of collaboration between architects and artists in landmark buildings, mostly during the interwar. This resulted in interesting examples that made daring use of color to highlight their volumetric composition. The painters who often collaborated with architects include Constantine Parthenis, Nico Hadjikyriacos-Ghikas, Spiro Papaloukas and Fotis Kontoglou.

The comparative study of the works evolving during those periods brings to the surface the influence of Greek architects that used color during the interwar, documents the color palettes, and elaborates on the theoretical links between modern architecture, neoclassicism and the vernacular.

Image sources:

Nikolaos Mitsakis:

Dimitri Pikonis:

Constantinos Decavallas:

Dimitris Fatouros: Papadopoulos, Lois; Tsitiridou, Sophia (ed.), Fatouros, Benaki Museum, DOMES Editions, Athens, 2009