6 Jun 2017

37. Popular domestic architecture 3: the 'sitio'

In modern Spanish the word ‘sitio’ means ‘place’, but traditionally in El Hierro the term was used in the Cuban meaning of ‘place where someone lives’, rather like ‘homestead’ in English. Unlike homestead, however, sitio had nothing to do with political organization or defence. And like traditional architecture, of which it forms part, it responded to the needs of the family unit.

The drawing represents quite faithfully a sitio sometime in the early twentieth century. We are looking at it from a height, roughly from the south, so that the two main gabled buildings have their long side facing southeast. It had probably begun as a single dwelling a long time before, the cottage with an open door and a figure sitting on the patio bench being the first. At that time it would have been thatched. It was customary for a daughter to remain at home to care for her parents when they got too old to fend for themselves. When she married, she and her husband would have built at a right angle to her parents’ home the single-pitched thatched construction and the small lean-to kitchen in front of the door of the earlier building. One of her siblings may then have built the rather more ambitious gable-ended cottage in the foreground on a lower level and with a sunken patio. The main house and the two new cottages shared two water cisterns, one under the central patio and the other at the far end of the sunken patio. Access to the cluster was from a path on the far side, around the back of the earliest building and, to the newest, through the sunken patio.

By this time there were probably three generations of the same family living in this sitio. Next another young woman got married and brought her groom to join the fold. Up until now the founding cottage had remained a small gable-pitched thatched affair occupying only half the ground space the drawing illustrates. The new-comers built their room alongside the founding cottage, raised the height of the gables to give greater head room since the floor of the new room was a metre and a half above that of the founding cottage and gave both structures a single, possibly tiled, roof. The previous buildings used dry-stone walling but in this case the three new walls were built of smaller stone compacted with earth. Access was through a door in the gable end facing southwest, i.e. towards us.

We are now in the twentieth century with an extended family embracing four generations and there is yet another addition to make to the cluster. This time three walls, using the same technique as the most recent addition, formed a new room along the width of the gable end of the other two. The entrance was again set facing southwest and the room was given a flat roof. The occupants of the previous room on the same level now opened a door facing northeast directly onto the footpath down past the sitio. This went against traditional usage but it avoided having to pass through the new room. At the same time, a small kitchen was built beside the door, again creating the typical ‘L’ shape with a small patio on the southwest side. A new water cistern was dug in front of the door and kitchen and all the rubble was stacked up on the other side of the entrance path which now skirted the new additions. The drawing shows a shed for animals at the top of the sitio.

In what was at that time a very difficult environment – a subsistence economy with no surplus with which to buy goods – the sitio provided a physical expression of the concept of ‘family’ and provided cooperation, not only in the production of food - herding, cultivation, gathering wild plants fishing, etc. ... -, bartering, and care - of the elderly and children, of the infirm and ill - but also in the production of tools and clothing etc. In a community of perhaps a dozen adults and a horde of youngsters and children, there were weavers and shoemakers, seamstresses and tinkers, blacksmiths and carpenters, knappers and bakers ..., not professional craftsmen but people capable of providing the basics for their extended family. In addition to the basic physical sitio, its members might also own pieces of land, often at some distance away, each suitable for the cultivation of a specific crop - cereals, pulses, figs, vines etc. - or forage and pasture thus ensuring a variety of resources throughout the year. So, the sitio was an economic unit based on strong family ties and collaboration capable of providing for a considerable number of people.

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