Project: Coastal chic

This modern seaside garden in Corfu features oleander, cycads and canary palms with rosemary and cypress. Photo: Marianne Majerus

Designer Thomas Doxiadis transformed Corfu cliff edge into a contemporary garden

Greek designer Thomas Doxiadis is now achieving full maturity as one of Europe’s leading landscape architects for both public and private projects, at home and abroad. In Greece, in the private sphere, he regularly deals with wealthy, cosmopolitan clients attracted by the sun and sea as well as economic crisis, but Doxiadis also began his career under the influence of a famous uncle, Constantine Doxiadis, one of Europe’s pioneer urban ecologists. Early on, his dominant concern was to respect and preserve ecological balance, particularly challenging in a country marked by millennia of human experience.

The house and garden materials complement each other and are set off by a strong evergreen structure. Photo: Marianne Majerus

Doxiadis founded his practice Doxiadis+ in 1999. It has always functioned on the basis of cross-disciplinary collaboration, always with respect for site history and ecological balance. Collaborators work on projects of different scales and types, from national environmental policy and large seven-star resorts to private residences. The studio has made a name for itself with dry gardening projects, comparable to those of James Basson MSGD in France - both designers inspired at times by nurseryman Olivier Filippi.

Pittosporum tobira ‘Nana’ domes line the sections of paving at the entrance. Photo: Marianne Majerus

One of Doxiadis’ most recent residential projects was on the island of Corfu, where Venetian occupation left behind vast plantations of ancient olive orchards gone wild, dotted with dense stands of giant cypress trees and redbuds, which overlook bold rocks cascading down to the sea. It has four times the rainfall of the Aegean, and plantings sometimes suffer from too much damp rather than drought.

The approach features stepping stones in gravel with cypress, erigeron and verbena. Photo: Marianne Majerus

Here, for their new holiday home, the clients wanted a ‘Mediterranean garden’ – an ideal that owes much to an earlier, much-publicised generation of design in Provence. Doxiadis credits creators such as Jean Mus and Nicole de Vésian with shifting client expectations from an English model to something genuinely Mediterranean, but today this image has become standardised, without local character, and it is not particularly ecological.

‘Iceberg’ roses and Trachelospermum in the floral zone. Photo: Marianne Majerus

The site had a small orchard, an olive grove and some vintage hotel infrastructure, long abandoned. When Doxiadis and his colleague Dionysia Liveri first visited it to identify its design challenges, the new house was still being built. They arrived in time to transplant olive trees that were threatened by the construction, and they worked with the contractor to limit damage to the immediate surroundings.

Strelitzias, citrus and yuccas in the tropical garden. Photo: Marianne Majerus

Doxiadis judged that the ecological part of this project consisted mainly of protecting pre-existing vegetation and earth. The designed part - intense, varied and ever beautiful - is relatively small and unfolds around the house. The steep relief of the hillside allowed for many varied spaces, and the main challenge was to coherently link the different ambiances.

Metal pergolas with slatted roofs shelter seating and dining areas by the infinity pool. Photo: Marianne Majerus

The entrance court, which Doxiadis characterises as chic, echoes the Provençal model in its volumes of clipped evergreen mounds contrasting with rough, pale limestone steps and paths. Along walkways, these are grouped architecturally as lines and masses. Elsewhere they function sculpturally, each plant keeping its own character, tone and volume, participating in an overall harmony. Hardscape here is soft: coarse stone, rough rock and gravel all come from the soil and retain the roughness and variation of natural materials. Architect Thodoris Zoumboulakis used concrete in the same pale tones for the buildings.

Agaves and yuccas help the transition between tropical and garrigue zones. Photo: Marianne Majerus

By the guesthouse, there is a hidden tropical garden, well protected from prevailing winds. An existing palm tree was transplanted there, surrounded by citrus carefully chosen for Corfu’s climate. The owner grew up in the tropics and particularly enjoys this blend of yuccas, agaves and bird of paradise flowers.

Further down the route is lined with old olives and wild scrubland planting. Photo: Marianne Majerus

All around, descending towards the sea, a typical plant palette provides seasonal colour, with rosemary, agapanthus, oleander, centranthus, the ubiquitous ‘Iceberg’ rose and polygala. Some choices, like jasmine, trachelospermum and pittosporum, produce sweet perfume through the seasons. Flowering verbenas create a beautiful, transparent lilac filter covering one transition. These lush but easy-care floral zones shade gradually into the dryer, natural landscape of existing olive groves.

The path leads down the cliff past steep rock faces to the sea. Photo: Marianne Majerus

The Doxiadis touch manifests in the transitions from zone to zone, from forest to sea. Dwarf Pittosporum tobira blends well with both formal and forest moods. In the meadow, roses and lilacs happily spill over. In drier zones, this role falls to a few ‘tropical’ cycads. In the coastal zone of wild scrubland, Agave americana mixed with lavenders surround the seating areas. Near the road and the neighbours’ house, newly planted cypress and olive trees shade into Corfu’s natural landscape. The result fulfils the owner’s dream while maintaining ecological balance and local character.

Words: Louisa Jones