At the crest of a grassy slope overlooking the Aegean Sea in Greece, OFFICE MUTO’s latest residential design venture takes form as a simple statement in courtyard architecture, meant to evoke the humble enclosure of a sheepfold. The concept itself may almost seem too simple if considered on a superficial level, but there are more layers to this statement that may escape initial comprehension. Described as an unassuming ‘House with a Garden,’ the structure radiates an aura bordering on the archaic, despite being firmly rooted in contemporary architectural sensibilities.
With a practice that is currently active in France, Greece, and Switzerland, OFFICE MUTO was founded by architect Alexandre Pavlidis with a mission to formulate spaces that highlight the beauty of the banal and complement it with the beauty of nature. Applied in the context of the Cyclades islands, the first point of this philosophy finds its manifestation in a structure of bare concrete and stone masonry. This is a home that expresses itself as an “oasis of rigid order,” embodying humanity’s struggle to seek refuge from the elements with an expression of rugged materiality, set against the more refined thinking of the modernist grid.
This expression was heavily influenced by the project’s context, as the site possessed a topography similar to that of a dry plateau looking out towards the valley, left open to be ravaged by prevailing winds due to a lack of natural barriers. The fact that the project did not require retaining walls, which would otherwise ground a structure on a slope such as this, compounded the problem. Therefore, it was necessary for the home’s architectural envelope to possess a firmness capable of resisting these forces in place of such structures.
In neighbouring regions, the walls of traditional sheepfolds serve to shelter the animals housed within them from winds. These structures are often configured around courtyards, as small rectangular enclosures that keep sheep contained while giving them a taste of the freedom available beyond its bounds. Simultaneously, this arrangement also visually relates the internal living space of the animals to a larger external space, making the area available to them seem larger than it actually is.
This solution seemed ideal for OFFICE MUTO’s purposes, as it provided the necessary protection against external winds while compensating for the relatively smaller footprints of internal living spaces. Hence, this is how the internal courtyard became the spiritual foundation of the home, with the main program areas connected to it as simple rectangular volumes. With little to speak in terms of a definitive façade design, the program comprises four main volumes, with an entrance to the courtyard lying at the centre of the wall bounding one extremity of the site, adjacent to which is a two car garage.
Further along this edge of the courtyard are a pair of residential blocks, one facing the courtyard, and one located slightly outside its bounds, containing two bedrooms each. A rectangular pool design borders one side of the internal residential block, stretching into the courtyard on one side and extending infinitely towards the sea on the other. There is an outdoor deck with a dining space and lounge here, which leads towards the living area and kitchen. The latter two spaces have been placed in a long block that occupies the majority of the edge of the courtyard opposite the garage.
Aside from the perimeter of the courtyard, there is no secondary circulation available through the structure. In this manner, the act of shifting between the home’s program areas involves an encounter with nature in a more controlled setting inside the home’s titular garden, protected from the dangers of the wilderness. This is where the second point of the firm’s philosophy finds its place, as the simplicity of the structural design blends into the background rather than taking centre stage, allowing the natural beauty of the Cyclades islands to come to the fore.
Filled with shrubs, trees, and all kinds of local flora, the courtyard is likely the single largest space within the home’s compound wall. The landscape design here goes beyond the scope of a simple courtyard, emulating the concept of a garden as a miniature landscape, where the irregular ebb and flow of nature are only broken by the order of the structural grid and stone architecture of the home’s blocks. Littered with bullseye arches, openings, and projections that frame views of the surrounding valley and the Aegean Sea, the experience of wandering through the courtyard may resemble that of exploring an ancient ruin, due to the unembellished aesthetic of the stone walls.
Imperfections in the stone walls augment the unpolished charm of the structure, which blends well with the natural beauty on show, ingraining the home’s presence into the context without overpowering it. The coursed stone masonry of the walls was assembled using the rubble obtained during excavation for the building’s foundation. OFFICE MUTO’s use of this masonry technique is peculiar when considering contemporary norms in residential architecture, and their decision to implement it is an intriguing choice with regards to the many benefits it offers.
Considering its organic relation to the site, rough, unpolished texture, as well as the physical and visual weight it provides to the ensemble, the stone procured during the initial stages of construction was a natural choice to assemble the home’s envelope. It creates a strong barrier against local winds, as required, but is also quite environmentally friendly since it reuses what would have otherwise been waste material, eliminating the need for additional energy to be expended in procuring and transporting materials to the site. In effect, this application of masonry construction roots the home in the very fabric of its context, as the stones had their origins in the plot, and will age or wear in tandem with the site, taking on a new dimension in the history of the region.
Despite the design’s clear reverence for traditional architectural sensibilities, there is also a strong contemporary touch that pervades it. This stems from the use of concrete framing in its structure, where the beams, slabs, and columns have been left exposed, offering a counterpoint to the irregular courses of stone with their refined aesthetic purity. Moreover, they also play a part in emphasising the horizontality of the design.
Similarly, from the outside, the austerity of the stone walls may seem almost spartan, but through the home’s interior design, this idea finds a softer identity while still retaining the ascetic purity that defines it. The texture of the stone walls is given a more delicate character by a plastered finish applied internally, which moderates between the rough exterior and the more contemporary fittings of the kitchen and fenestrations. This blend of archaic and contemporary is at the core of House with Garden, where OFFICE MUTO has realised a contextually sensitive realisation of their architectural philosophy while minimising disruption to the local environment.
Name: House with a Garden
Architect: OFFICE MUTO
Lead Architect: Alexandre Pavlidis
Location: Sifnos, Cyclades, Greece
Year of Conception: 2019
Year of Completion: 2023
Plot Area: 5650 sqm
Area: 270 sqm