Fera—a town where no town should be—is an architectural feat for just that reason. It has been achieved largely without architects, and its builders have developed a remarkable symbiosis with their dangerous host, an active and restless volcano. Fera, a comparatively modern town of about 2,000, picturesquely clusters at the edge of a 900-foot (275-meter) cliff above its harbor. It is the capital of Santorini, the 28-square-mile (73-square-kilometer) main island of the southernmost group of the Cyclades.
The other islands in the volcanic group are Therasia, Aspronisi, Paea Kameni, and Nea Kameni. The latter two were created by eruptions since 197 b.c., and the others are fragments of Stronghyle (literally, the round one) after a cataclysm in the middle of the second millennium b.c. It is estimated that this so-called Minoan eruption spewed about 42 billion tons (35.5 billion tonnes) of volcanic material 23 miles (36 kilometers) into the air, blanketing the remaining islands in pumice and ash to a depth of 100 feet (30 meters). The consequent earthquakes and tidal waves destroyed buildings on the south coast of Crete, 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. Santorini has been inhabited since about 3200 b.c. In 1967 the archeologist Spiros Marinatos excavated the city of Akrotiri from the volcanic ash; its culture bore many similarities to the Minoan, and its seafaring people evidently traded throughout the Mediterranean. About 1000 b.c., the island was colonized by migrating Dorians, who built the first Fera and from there founded the colony of Cyrene, Libya, in 634 b.c. Santorini was taken by Athens in 426 b.c. and subsequently by Egypt, Rome, and Byzantium. The island fell in a.d. 1207 to the Venetians, who named it St. Irini, from which Santorini is derived. From 1537 Santorini was occupied by Turks; liberated in 1821, it became part of modern Greece.
During the Minoan eruption, the removal of so much magma caused the volcano to collapse, producing a caldera 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) in area. In places its sheer walls soar to nearly 1,200 feet (350 meters) above the sea and plunge nearly 1,300 feet (400 meters) beneath its surface. Despite a recent history of eruptions—1866–1870, 1925–1928, 1938–1941, 1950, and 1956—the town of Fera has been continually rebuilt on its precarious perch, the very rim of an active volcano. Most of the houses—the world-famous white-and-blue architecture is a medley of Cycladic and Venetian styles standing cheek by jowl—were built in the nineteenth century after the old Venetian capital of Skaros, immediately to the north, was devastated by earthquakes. Much of Fera was destroyed in the 1956 earthquake, but phoenixlike, it rose again, quite literally from the ashes.
Once, the inaccessible location on the caldera’s lip offered security from seaward attack. And the ancient volcanic deposits have provided a rich source of building material and a richer opportunity to improvise. Fera’s indigenous architecture, in houses and public buildings alike, responds to the multiple constraints of volcano, earthquake, shortage of timber, and the heat and glare of summer. The abundant volcanic material is used in the lightweight vaults and domes so common in the town. The gleaming white walls reflect the summer sun, generations of layered lime wash making the lines of the structures fluid. Most of the cliff-clutching houses have cool, lofty, vaulted inner rooms carved from Santorini’s soft rock mantle; only the sala (front room) is built up. This inexpensive way to enlarge a house gave rise to an architecture and an urban design in which one house’s courtyard is the roof of the house below it. More importantly, this widespread building technique has created a town of sweet integration: no collection of competing buildings, this, but a place with an overwhelming sense of community.