Why are Greek buildings blue and white?

Several fellow bloggers have asked me if I know why Greek houses and churches are painted blue and white –

I’m pleased to have unexpectedly been promoted to an expert on Greek exterior design, so I shall try my best to answer.

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Greek church on Kithnos.

 

One thing I definitely know, is that it is mostly the islands in the Cyclades group which are traditionally painted blue and white, with flat roofs.  Most people will have heard of Mykonos and Santorini. I have also visited Paros, Naxos, Amorgos, and Syros, which are also in the Cyclades group, and where houses are traditionally painted white and blue. But on the other side of Greece, in the Ionian, there are often more traditional stone houses with dark coloured roof tiles. In other island groups, the buildings can also look completely different, without a blue dome in sight.

Here are some of my photos from the Cyclades islands.

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Most of the following information was found via an Internet search, and Wikipedia.
Houses in Greece are not covered in actual white paint, but are traditionally covered with a layer of plaster (Sovas in Greek). This layer is made out of calcium carbonate or lime stone. This plaster is regularly maintained by whitewashing by the same material. Now calcium carbonate is very bright white, so bright indeed that under the bright summer Greek sun can give you a headache. So people add a bit of blue color in the whitewash to “break” the brightness. So there is aways blue in the whitewash even if it looks white to you, and by adding more blue you can have nice white and blue designs. But blue was the most common, because long time ago there was a cleaning agent called “loulaki” that had that distinctive blue color. People using it for bleaching clothes and bedding and every house had some.

The whitewash is very easy to make and quite inexpensive. You mix slaked lime (a white dust) with salt and water, and slop it on. It washes easily off your hands and clothing. Here’s how to make it….
Mix everything in a large bucket, a five gallon paint bucket is ideal:

3 large coffee cans of hydrated lime (about 12 cups)
1 pound or 1 small coffee can of salt (about 4 cups)
2 gallons of water

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Houses are white washed because it keeps them cool. The houses themselves are very old and were built before modern conveniences like air-conditioning. The white wash reflects sunlight keeping them cool. They are even cool to the touch. The houses are white-washed up to three times a year, most traditionally before Easter, with each person being responsible for white washing their own home. The blue domes represent the sea and sky.

Another advantage is that it is harmless to goats if they eat it; and it is detrimental to bugs. Whitewash was used in dairies all over Europe and North America to help keep them clean and sanitary.

Why blue? and not green or yellow? Well actually there are green, yellow, red even purple. People were using what ever color they could find. It can be tinted pink by adding iron oxide (rust); or other mineral colours can be added like ochre, for a yellowish tone. It is thought that the use of whitewash in Greece goes back to the classical period.

Those that argued in favour of more colour, say that the ‘white’ style is relatively modern, having been introduced in the 1930s, influenced by the Avant Garde movement and architects like Le Corbusier. Prior to that, houses in the Cyclades were coloured in ochre yellow, red earth or cobalt blue. Apparently, the combination of white and blue was introduced during the dictatorial rule of Metaxas, in a quest for order and uniformity, but it is no longer compulsory to paint your house white, or to have blue doors and window frames.

Another explanation for buildings being white and blue, is that they are the colours of the Greek flag.

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24 thoughts on “Why are Greek buildings blue and white?

  1. Wonderful post Georgie. Informative, easy to read and with super pictures. Ticks all the boxes.
    Interesting that this whiteness isn’t traditional and may be as recent as 1930.
    I remember being told that the houses on one of gas Venetian islands were brightly painted so that each returning fishermen could spot his own house. I like to think that’s true. The houses there are really bright blues, greens, pinks, yellows , every colour.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you! Informative and nicely told. I remember as a child in central Europe helping to whitewash our out buildings – guess I wasn’t good – and tall – enough to work on the house.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. My friend goes to Mykonos every year and the pictures are always amazing and make me jealous of her trips. 😊 Thanks for the explanation as to why so many buildings in Greece are blue and white. I wonder if the process can be simulated in Los Angeles. I used to use Mrs. Smith’s bluing agent in my laundry, so I think it is still available… Hmmmmm 😊👍

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting! It reminded me that when I was a child my mother ( Irish) would put some blue stuff in a little gauze bag in with whites to make them more “white”. It was called Bluing.(spelling?) I enjoyed your photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! For some reason, this has been my most popular post ever! I only wrote it in reply to someone’s question, but everyone seems to have loved it! Thanks for reading! I remember those ‘blue bags’ too, which were added to washing…..

      Liked by 1 person

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