Christina Seilern designed a cluster of white forms sitting lightly on an olive grove on the small island of Paros in the South Aegean, as a villa for her family. Tom Boddy spoke to the architect
Sitting in a tranquil olive grove on the quiet west side of the isle of Paros, Greece, is a strikingly modern but site-sensitive residence, designed by Christina Seilern, founder of London practice Studio Seilern. It’s composed of a cluster of disaggregated, dynamically linear white forms, aligned with the passage of the sun.
Grouped around a stunning, cantilevering infinity pool which reaches out westwards and blends the view of the pool with the Aegean, the home’s forms are oriented to take the full benefit of the sunset, particularly in the summer months.
The building, which was completed in 2021, is not only a significant new residential project for the practice, it’s also a second home to Christina Seilern and her family. The architect’s carefully-detailed design displays the deceptive simplicity and elegance which characterise many of her practice’s works. Recent examples of similarly highly crafted residential schemes by Studio Seilern including a clutch of other high-end, horizontally-planned homes on the neighbouring island of Antiparos.
Despite having nine bedrooms, the building contains no corridors or hallways, instead circulation flows via the exterior spaces and various courtyards. It’s built across three levels, but largely single storey – there’s a small second level containing the master bedroom, and a lower ground housing two bedrooms and a bathroom. Its horizontal form combines ‘floating’ slabs and materials commonly used locally, forming an intricate composition which celebrates materiality.
When Christina Seilern and her Greek husband acquired the site, which had planning permission to build a home, it was a fully functioning olive grove, and is still harvested. “We knew we had inherited something quite strong,” says Seilern. Greek laws have changed with regards to the set-back requirements from the sea, however fortunately the granted permission allowed her to build within the old ‘setback,’ thereby in a preferable spot.
The site is a “very windy place” although benefitting from being right next to the sea, and boasting fantastic views of the surrounding islands and the Aegean itself. The initial design response was all about “dealing with the elements of the site,” says the architect, adding that she “didn’t want to create a “radical architectural masterpiece” because that would “feel out of context” in terms of the unspoilt surroundings.
While there were some set functional and programme requirements, Seilern approached the project without having a pre-established aesthetic. She affirms that the project is representative of the highly context-sensitive approach that her practice prides itself on in its commissions. “We try to react to the places we build in. The architecture is informed by the culture of the site.” She describes how, once that context is firmly embedded, “the design process is like “writing a book, the story can take you to places that you haven’t imagined.”
The building’s assemblage of forms is not only determined by the Greek islands’ familiar vernacular architecture of thick-walled “white boxes,” designed to keep interiors cool in hot sun, but also by the site’s existing landscape. The olive grove was planted in a grid formation, and therefore when deciding on the orientation, Seilern explains that it was a “natural step to align ourselves to this grid,” as well as following the sun.
The building’s strongly linear volume and deliberate orientation is centred around an east-west “solar axis.” The home’s key components have all been designed to maximise enjoyment of the sunset, and frame views through glazing and open apertures. “A lot of the design was really about capturing the beauty of the sunset,” which included creating seating areas that would “maximise the long views of the sea.”
Another key design imperative was to create a home that “felt like it barely touched the ground” – a structure that “lightly floats,” says Seilern. As a response to this, the villa is assembled of overlapping terrazzo slabs and platforms, with different areas and courtyards varying in level while overhanging from each other. These compositional elements “dematerialise things, and make the building appear weightless,” says Seilern.
While the freestanding, asymmetrical exterior walls appear somewhat randomly placed (although aligned with the ‘solar axis,’ they have a vital purpose. The exposed, flat location at the edge of the island is vulnerable to the strong prevailing winds of the Meltemi – the name the Greeks and Turks use for the dry Etesian wind blowing from north to northwest across the Aegean Sea. Therefore the geometry of the walls but also the courtyards have been carefully planned to break up the wind, resulting in sheltered outside areas.
Pool & pergola
The project’s centrepiece is the striking ’negative-edge’ pool, extending over the olive grove, and being the most eye-catching example of the ‘floating’ theme. Seilern explains how the home’s “long, linear architecture” was designed around the pool, and with it presenting “six different edge conditions,” she says, “it was probably the most difficult thing to design in the house.”
Despite being a massive structure, it appears light, sitting above the landscape. Mirror-clad to reflect the Mediterranean sky, the pool blends into its surroundings, giving the effect of a further, ‘floating’ slab. “This allows the landscape to take precedence and occupy the whole site visually,” says Seilern.
In the evening, the pool “becomes like a mirror itself,” says Seilern. It turns orange at sunset, and “bounces light onto the rest of the villa.” Ensuring its pristine, minimalist lines remain uninterrupted, the technical aspects in the pool such as the water jets and returns have all been concealed.
With the site’s exposed location, the architects knew the wind would churn up the water’s surface, however they had to build in a contingency to tackle this once it became clear exactly how it would perform. The solution was a system that enables the level of the water to be raised or lowered depending on wind speed and direction. “These are the things that you can’t design on paper,” says Seilern; “you have to figure it out at the later stages.”
Continuing the linearity of the project, adjacent to the pool is a long bamboo-roofed pergola, a “big element” of the scheme, says Seilern. Working alongside a specialist fabricator, the team looked to reimagine regular Greek pergolas, which are “usually a wooden or steel structure,” to again give a lightweight feel. Constructed using gumtree, the panels were fabricated and then “hung underneath the structure, rather than above it. The whole thing feels like it’s floating.”
This long, naturally covered shape is punctured by a single oculus which brings light into the poolside lounge (which made from chiselled marble), and “acts a bit like a sundial,” says Seilern. She adds: “It’s fun, because it illuminates the space in a different way, every hour of the day.”
A ‘little village’
Rather than being ‘one building,’ the various parts – facilitated by avoiding corridors in place of external circulation – are designed as stand-alone rooms, each with their own entrance. “We wanted functions to flow between each other. Removing corridors means removing boundaries and barriers,” says Seilern. “It’s like a little village!”
With its main purpose a summer beach house, blurring outdoor and indoor was a key requirement. This extends to the various functions: “The living room is the kitchen. The office is an extension of that.”
The largest volume, sitting behind the pergola, occupies two levels, containing a living space on the ground floor and a bedroom above, which has a terrace accessed via sliding doors. The other bedrooms all have their own courtyard as well as a view of the sea, and every courtyard has its own tree. Carrying on an old tradition, Seilern put a Cypress in one of the courtyards. “The Greek landscape architect we worked with told me that when a boy is born (on the island of Andros) where my husband is originally from, a Cypress tree would be planted.”
Integrating “moments” of nature within the project was crucial to the project’s success in helping the building blend thoroughly with its surroundings. “We wanted to feel as if the natural landscape was seeded within the house itself.” The concrete-formed outdoor levels are continually interrupted by planters or trees, thereby “softening everything up wonderfully.” In the morning the family has breakfast by the fig tree, providing them with fresh figs.
A large focus of the project was to use sustainable and local materials, to this end Seilern specified an aerated Eaton concrete block reported to use “about 30% less carbon than what you would usually use for a house.” As well as acting as an insulator, it avoids the typical cavity requirements of residential designs. According to Seilern the project achieved a very low embodied carbon score due to the material choices. The terrazzo, marble, and other materials were all supplied through local suppliers and artisans. “We tried as much as possible to go local to reduce the shipping.” For example the cladding and stone used in the courtyards are all from the island’s quarry.
Seilern spent considerable time “looking for clues” in the history of the architecture of the island to inspire her design. “What I discovered was that the many churches on the island use stone surrounds around the windows and entrances, making them feel a bit more special,” explains the architect. The apertures within the structure are framed by a densely hammered Aliveri marble, which creates the illusion that the whole slab is carved out of the material. It was “bush hammered” to turn it a “butterlike, soft whitish grey.”
She said that she wanted to try and emulate some of these historic architectural techniques to try and embed the project in its locality, with a strict focus on avoiding pastiche. Instead it would be “a reinterpretation of something that has existed for thousands of years,” says Seilern.
A restrained palette
The project’s minimalist design ethos and simple arrangement carries on inside. The interior uses a very limited palette of high quality materials: white oiled oak, terrazzo, stone, and white render. Says Seilern, “If you work with great materials you don’t need to overdesign everything.”
Counters and benches feature sandblasted and chiselled stone. These details, or “careful adjustments,” say the architects, “provide complexity without overloading the site, allowing the magic of the landscape to imbue the house with the unique energy which is the reason we build by the seaside.”
Much like the dexterous hiding of services in the exterior, internally the technical aspects such as the air conditioning slots have been discreetly covered. “I didn’t want to see anything – it was all about keeping it simple.”
In the bedrooms, the beds sit centrally rather than against a wall, allowing space for a desk behind them. “There’s something very nice about being able to circulate around it,” says Seilern. The large, unadorned square windows “appear like paintings,” offering panoramic views of the local scenery.
Seilern is justifiably proud of the stunning holiday home she has created on this small island, one which enhances and respects its landscape. Responsible for some renowned concert hall designs, she finds the house similarly inspiring now, despite having spent a lot of time and effort on realising it: “When you arrive, it’s like a symphonic moment.”