Aegean Architecture is greatly manifested in the four major palaces. The organic quality of Minoan style is seen most clearly in the palaces of Crete. The four major palaces known—at Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and Zakros—followed the same basic plan. Rooms, on several levels, were functionally organized around a large central court. These courts must have accommodated crowds of worshipers, who gathered in front of the cult rooms to the west. The palaces also had extensive basement storage areas, artists’ workshops, dining halls, and sumptuous living quarters (including bathrooms) for the noble ruling families. The structures were light and flexible, rather than monumental, and entirely unfortified. The distinctive Minoan column, with its downward taper, suggests movement rather than stability. Another specifically Minoan feature was the polythyron, a wall made of doors, which allowed for flexibility in ventilating or closing off a room.
The private habitations of Minoan Crete ranged from simple peasant dwellings to rich mansions and villas, constructed with the same features and fine techniques as the palaces. A wide variety of buildings were constructed for burials. The most distinctive were the tholos tombs of southern Crete, circular buildings with corbelled stone vaulting, built large enough to accommodate family burials for many centuries.
On the Greek mainland, the palaces of the rulers were completely different from those of Crete. They incorporated the characteristic megaron, a dominant central hall. The Megara of the best-known palaces—at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos—were strikingly similar. Each was entered from a courtyard through a porch flanked by columns and had a large central hearth surrounded by four columns. The mainland sites tended to be fortified with huge walls of cyclopean masonry, constructed of massive, irregular blocks. Recent excavations at Mycenae indicate that, as in Crete, the palaces served as centers of worship as well as of government. For royal burials the Mycenaean Greeks first used shaft graves; later they adopted the Minoan tholos tomb and developed it into an impressive burial structure. The tombs were covered with earth tumuli, or artificial mounds, and were entered through long passageways. In the most developed tombs, such as the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, Aegean architecture can be seen in the large, circular spaces dramatically vaulted with thick canopies of stone.