Houses that Look to the Mediterranean to Learn How to Inhabit and Teach to Design

Antonino Margagliotta

Università degli Studi di Palermo

The Mediterranean is observed by infinite eyes that exploit the beauty and return it in the forms of architecture. These eyes are houses that reveal the identity of the sea, confront and contemplate it, although they belong to the earth and are almost always set against a skyline of mountains. Some of them have emerged almost spontaneously, while others possess a genealogy that can be reconstructed. Given that these houses help us understand how to inhabit the Mediterranean, a recent educational activity developed in the schools of architecture and engineering in the city of Palermo, Sicily, explores the forms of architecture with which the Mediterranean can still be an expression of memory and invention for the contemporary house.

The Mediterranean could be described through architecture; even better with architectures of houses that, more than others, can express with great richness of forms the characters and modes of the act of inhabiting. Houses reflect and tell the story of the Mediterranean, observed by infinite eyes that exploit the beauty and return it in the forms of architecture. These eyes are houses that reveal the essence and identity of the sea: some have emerged almost spontaneously, generated between the sea, earth and sky; for others, their genealogy can be reconstructed; some of them belong to the myth.

These houses face the sea and contemplate it: they seek it out with their gaze, embrace its smell and noise, thrive on its light. The same houses are surprised by the beauty of the sea and quake at that line where land and water meet. The houses that look to the sea are places of happiness for the men and women who live there, for the spirit of architecture, for the places themselves; they are spaces of freshness and silence where the voices of the water, air and wind are heard. They look to the sea and yet belong to the earth; in reality, they confront the immensity of the horizon of the sea and almost always have as a backdrop a landscape of rocks and a skyline of mountains. The houses that look to the sea watch over and care for it.

The houses that look to the sea have fought against the elements of nature (the ground, light, climate) but they defend and regard the natural presences as a source of wealth. The houses that look to the sea, an artifice in nature, are at peace with it, despite having passionately confronted a conflict to unite with the ground and reach up to the sky, which in the end does not create oppression, winners or losers. The serene and persistent stability of the houses contrasts with the rapid mutability of the light, while being firmly set amidst this clarity helps them overcome the variations in ground level and the instability of the play of waves that pursue each other over the surface of the sea and that, ever differently, break on the coast.

The houses that look to the sea are realms to rest from everyday fatigue, places to glimpse the port of imagination, the sign of discontinuity in the territory and in life. The sea, in the end, looks at these houses and feels satisfied.

However, in architecture there are no programme limitations. In terms of technical solutions and the meaning of the house, the peculiarities linked to geographical contexts can be identified, determining ideas of space, forms, modes of living and ways of understanding architecture itself.

The houses that look to the sea, more than defining a Mediterranean imaginary – that is, an abstract vision or an idealisation – can describe the meaning of permanence and the duration of some principles that are not only aesthetic or constructive but also, in relation to the environment, an expression of an ethic of doing and living, shared and diffuse; to the point of considering the Mediterranean as an element that unifies (in the space-time dimension) contributions from different eras, ambits that today tend to be separated (West and East, for example), experiences in apparent opposition and that, in contrast, are developed with processes of continuity and proximity. In reference to architecture, consider the affirmation of the tipos and the spatial solutions (the closure of the Roman domus, the definition of the house with patio, the introverted Arab house), the technical solutions that ensure solidity and permanence (the formal principle of pure solid mass, highly present in medieval architecture), the terminological questions (the word casa comes from the Arabic qas and means life), and the apparent ideological disturbances (the abstractions of the architectures of the Modern Movement that, through a complete renewal of the model of the house, reasserts the principle of a language of all for all ‒ the ancient idea of koine ‒ mediated through the recovery of classical culture, myth and the spontaneous language of the Mediterranean). 

We should not exclude from our considerations the old way of thinking that contributed to the definition of ethical principles that influence artistic practices and building methods. For example, the contribution of classical philosophy to the concept of “elementary”, linked to parrhēsia; in other words, to the need to speak the truth: “When the question of the truth is put to thought it raises the dimension of the essential as that which always remains, transcends mental variations, and knows no temporal decomposition… the question of the truth to life [emerges] in its materiality, permitting that which resists absolutely to be brought to light… Then, after ascetic reduction, the elementary rises to the surface, like a nappe of absolute necessity. There remains the earth for living, the starry sky as roof, and streams from which to drink… By asking for what is true in each desire and each need, Cynic parrhēsia produces a scouring of existence.” 

Within this culture and this geography, architecture is expressed, then, with a continuity of thought that the sea has reverberated towards all shores (and from there to inland areas). The modes of the act of inhabiting and constructing have been defined with forms of settlement that the slow process of sedimentation and an uninterrupted reflection have codified, with permanent aspects in time and space (almost timeless and global, due to the size of the Mediterranean), both in the traditional constructions (the so-called “spontaneous architecture”) and the planned buildings: “Capri technicians,” writes Le Corbusier “are the eternal builders that raise up vaults upon four solid walls built with stones carved in the rock. Poverty has arrived and maintained, for two thousand years, the most splendid form of its extreme possibilities: the vault upon solid walls. A perfect architectural unity reigns over the island, from the small house of the vine grower to the construction of La Certosa. Probably the same sense of unity also inspired the great building where Tiberius, on the spur of the island, had arranged his imperial spaces. It is, therefore, current and eternal.” 

This conceptual convergence between spontaneous architecture (that up to a certain moment is a lived and shared experience) and designed architecture, in other words, between popular culture and artistic culture, allows for the definition of precise relationships between men, landscapes and things. The strong expression of the houses that look to this sea consists, in fact, of the ability to weave relationships, above all with the environment; the idea of the Mediterranean house, in other words, is defined through the ways of resolving and revealing the relations between constructed form and natural elements (between project and place), including in the sphere of the place the questions of earth and ground, sky and air, climate and light, the life of man in contact with nature.

More than anything else, the climate has affected the constructed form of the house that looks to the sea: “…climate,” wrote Hassan Fathy, “shapes the rhythm of their lives as well as their habitat and clothes… The people who live under the blazing sun of the desert construct houses with thick walls to insulate themselves from the heat, and with very small openings to keep out hot air and the glare of the sun. These successful solutions to the problems of climate did not result from deliberate scientific reasoning. They grew out of countless experiments and accidents and the experience of generations of builders who continued to use what worked and rejected what did not. They were passed on in the form of traditional, rigid, and apparently arbitrary rules for selecting sites, orienting the building, and choosing the materials, building method, and design.” 

The compactness of the building, therefore, reduces the area of exposure to sunrays; the thickness of the walls, as well as illustrating the building techniques, prevents heat from entering; the small openings, deep between the solid walls, are in the shade and emphasise the enclosure and interiority of the house. All these questions lead to the aesthetic of pure masses, the spatiality achieved by subtraction, the search for reduction, the light (which interacts with the built form and determines the act of inhabiting) correctly dosed to balance the need for light and shade. 

The result is the play of light and shadow, light and dark, day and night. “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” This is not only Le Corbusier’s poetic programme but also the revelation of a way of understanding architecture that already exists and is grasped with the reading of local traditions, interpreted through the search for essentiality and purity.

In addition to the modalities of enclosure, other aspects of the house come from the logic of the relationship with the environment and the artificial place, determined by “how this standing and rising is concretized,” as Christian Norberg-Schulz recalls. The house adheres to the qualities of the ground in the way it stands on it, while by rising it acknowledges the essence of the place “modifying and saturating it, establishing its knowledge and founding its use,” as Vittorio Gregotti said.

The relationship with nature is also taken to extreme consequences, with the possibility of living in the open air. The interior environments have an exterior projection, while patios, gardens, pergolas, terraces and small annexes lend depth and air, as well as spatial richness, to the house: “They are an invitation to be outside, to live in the open air, to move and touch the ground, the flowers, the stone, the water…” The flat roofs are open air rooms for collecting water when it rains, drying the products of the earth, going to sleep under the stars on warm summer nights.

Something should be said about the materials (which combine the principles of solidity of matter, the firm stability of masses in opposition to the liquidness of the sea and the roughness of the ground) and colour: both are presences that help reveal the modalities with which the buildings are raised: almost always a single colour exalts the idea of mono-materiality and the aspiration to the primary. The houses that look to the sea, then, are white (with lime plaster and stone from the quarries of the islands); other times they are the colours of the earth or the stone itself, previously removed from nature to accommodate the building and later returned to the landscape.   

Given that these houses help us to understand how to inhabit the Mediterranean, in recent years an educational activity has been carried out in schools of architecture and engineering in Palermo that has explored the modalities with which the Mediterranean can still be an expression of memory and invention for the contemporary house.

The house, of course, still represents the space that is the expression of the relationship between man, environment and architecture, between memory and invention, between quality of space and life. The theme of the house is also useful to define a vision of architecture and a model of life, faced with a mass culture often disrespectful of natural places and that has lost sensitivity for the beauty of built places. In this respect, education is important, especially among the young, for whom it can be an occasion not only to teach how to desing but also to learn how to inhabit.

Thus, first year students have to design a house on the coastal landscapes of Sicily and the smaller islands (Lampedusa, Levanzo, Favignana). The architectural project is an exercise in recognising existing beauty and that, although it applies rules and principles, does not recoil from the charm of creative invention. The subject of the exercise is the design of a solitary single-family house: a building of modest size (in the last year barely 64 m2, like Le Corbusier’s petite maison) with enclosed and open, interior and exterior, covered and uncovered spaces, which confronts psychological and symbolic, figurative and constructive and technical and functional questions of the house in the framework of the Mediterranean landscape.

The house also lends itself to exploring the constitutive principles of architecture, the rules and principles necessary for its definition, based on the relationship with the place, in its historical, real and literary dimension. At the same time, the project seeks to teach us how to understand and interpret the physical environment in its morphological, typological and linguistic aspects as well as its value as modification and construction of the landscape, assuming as essential the relations with the system of existing signs, with the idea of identity and belonging.

Each project is organised in relation to a series of specific modalities with which to guarantee the identity of the place and according to a functional programme that links the house to the territory, to the narrative of the place, to the stories and needs of the inhabitants of the house. From a typological point of view, the project is reduced to the compact houses in blocks, to houses with patios, and to houses that lend themselves to sightings and resemble towers and vantage points. In these three conditions it is possible to contain a plausible and adequate classification of the forms of the Mediterranean.

Thus, following the steps of the houses that look to the sea, the projects are based on the relations with the context, the clarity and visibility of the principle of settlement, the simplicity of the typological settling, the use of basic geometries, and the work of subtraction and reduction to the essential. With everyone´s passion, those who teach and those who learn, and the love of places, the projects are successes that talk of the solidified characters in the Mediterranean, which come from nature and man, whose principles cross time and history. The small architectures that the students design can be included, therefore, in the aura of Mediterraneity, with the desire and effort to reaffirm its quality of space and life.


Aymard, M., Spazi, en Braudel, F., Il Mediterraneo. Lo spazio, la storia, gli uomini e le tradizioni, Milan, Bompiani, 1987.

Campo Baeza, A., Casas, Melfi, Libria, 2009.

Frampton, K., Storia dell’architettura moderna, Bologna, Zanichelli, 1982.

Le Corbusier, C.E., Une petite maison, Zurich, Girsberger, 1954.

Le Corbusier, C. E., La casa degli uomini, Milan, Jaca Book, 1984.

Margagliotta, A., Progetto e Costruzione, Palermo, Ila Palma, 2004.

Picone, A. (Coord.), Culture mediterranee dell’abitare, Naples, Clean, 2016.

Rogers, E.N., Esperienza dell’architettura, Turin, Einaudi, 1958.

Rykert, J., La casa di Adamo in Paradiso, Milan, Edizioni Adelphi, 1972.