8 Jun 2017

39. Popular domestic architecture 1

What follows is the fruit of my personal observation. I am not an architect and so it may be far off the mark. But somehow I don’t think so.

The traditional popular domestic architecture of El Hierro is a rural architecture. The island's urban architecture is no different from that of the other islands.What distinguishes it is a number of ingenious responses to the islanders’ physical, economic and social world, each of which responses by itself may not mean much but together they make up a characterization which is rapidly being lost.

This ruin on the road known as Betenama may not have been a house but nevertheless illustrates some of the
characteristics of a humble dwelling. The rafters resting on the the ridge beam at one end and on the wall at the
other - notice the slope at the top of the wall. Inside the building some of the beams supporting the loft still
remain. What is disconcerting is the door - the only opening in this building: it seems to be on the same
height as the floor of the loft and it is very low. This building is really a very fine example of dry stone
walling, with the absolute minimum of squaring.


You will nowhere find a farmhouse on El Hierro for the simple reason that a farmhouse requires a farmer, not an absentee landlord. Until well into the twentieth century the traditional dwelling was a simple stone-walled one-room cottage measuring roughly 5-7 by 3-4 metres inside. I have heard that the dimensions depended on the length of the central ridge-beam of pitch-pine heartwood the family could afford, that is if the family actually owned the house.

Dry stone walling using basalt. Note
the flakes used as fillers between
larger stones and the heavy
cornerstones on the left. The one in
the middle may weigh 200 kg.
The walls were massive, up to around 80cm thick, built by keying in dry stone, mostly basalt, with the minimum of squaring. The spaces between the larger stones on the face of the wall were filled with the flakes knapped off when preparing the building stone. The corner stones were always especially big and heavy and in more prosperous houses were often large faced blocks of red, brown or black volcanic conglomerate. On the way up from the port of La Estaca you can see where some of these corner-stones were quarried.

An alternative method of construction, presumably used when the supply of large basalt stones was limited, was to use smaller material packed together with earth in a frame, a variant of the rammed earth technique. I have not met anyone who has actually
A wall using smaller material set in
puddled earth. The cornerstones on
the right are volcanic conglomerate.

witnessed construction using this method but some of the walls of my own house can only be explained in this way.

The walls were grouted outside and rendered inside with a paste of plaster or dung mixed with goat hair, or simply earth, and pushed into the spaces between large stones and fillers. The plum-pie effect you often see today on restored houses – large stones exposed between areas of thick cement – is a more recently invented ‘tradition’.
Remains of dung and plaster grouting. The resistance of this
material is surprising: this example has,to my knowledge,
been exposed at least for forty years , perhaps 60 or 70!

Roofs were traditionally gable-pitched and thatched with rye straw, hence the popular term ‘pajero’, from ‘paja’ (=straw) although thatch is called ‘colmo’ on the island, with one end of the rafters simply resting on the heavy ridge-beam and the other on the walls. As there is very little clay on the island, roofing tiles, even of the Roman type, were normally out of the question but in the early 20th century flat French ‘Marseille’ tiles became available. At the same time, lime was imported to La Restinga where there still exist the furnaces that were used to convert it into quick lime.

This enabled the very curious construction of impermeable, and much less combustible, flat roofs. Beams stretching from one side of the room to the other were laid at fairly close intervals along the walls and on top of these a dense packing of large splinters (astillas) of pitch-pine. On top of the splinters, a layer of gravel and then another thick layer of sand and lime laboriously compacted by hand with large pebbles. Practically eternal!

Presumably with the popularization of tiles, low parapets began to be used at the gable end to hold the tiles down in strong winds and compensate for the lack of squared corners – evidently no-one knew of the 3-4-5 formula for there is not a 90º corner anywhere on the island! In the case of flat roofs the parapet ensured rainwater was not lost. In the north of the island there are quite a few, I think beautifully proportioned, houses with a very elegantly angled gable-end that use the same conglomerate rock as the cornerstones to make the parapet.

Finally, there is nothing curious about the fact that such cottages never had a bathroom nor toilet – why should they? Water was very precious and the dwellers were out all day herding or working the unforgiving land. Besides, most of London was built without such amenities! And windows? The humbler dwellings had none. They did not need them, even if they could have afforded the glass: they only went home to sleep!

7 Jun 2017

38. Popular domestic architecture 2

At right angles forming an ‘L’ with this simple cottage, there is usually a small kitchen attached, often with a flat roof and ceiling of splinters blackened by the smoke of a thousand meals cooked over an open fire. This disposition was no accident. El Hierro has, together with La Palma, the most Atlantic climate of all the Canaries. The cool, humid Trade Winds from the north and northeast are constant and quite often much more than a pleasant breeze. The ‘L-shape' provides the islanders with a sunny patio, facing preferably south but in practice anywhere between southeast and west, that protects them from the wind. The door of the dwelling most often gives on to this patio and there is invariably a masonry bench beside it for grandma to sit on. This orientation of dwelling and patio is the same whether on the northern or southern slopes of the island and is often maintained even when dwellings are clustered together.

A two storey house in the north of the island. Note the gable end and the traditional rendering of the walls. In this example, the 'L-shape' has been obscured by partial roofing at a later date and another construction in front.
Wherever possible, the islander built not on valuable flat arable land but on a slope, often taking advantage of a break or natural step in the slope. Again a slope facing roughly south was preferred and goes some way to explaining the somewhat curious way hamlets seem to have grown on only one side of the ridges. There were also practical constructional advantages: rainwater collected from the roof could be channelled round the ends of the cottage down to the water cistern which every dwelling had and was often near or under the patio. More importantly, however, a slope or naturally terraced piece of land facilitated construction and, of course, two-storeyed buildings: half the uphill wall was already there. In villages, especially on the more fertile northern slopes, where the two storey construction was formalized, windows were set in the upper storey walls and small barred ventilation openings are commonly found downstairs.

The humble building on the left, roughly contemporary with the one in the photo above, is a good example of the transition from rural tradition to urban. The patio has in some way been replaced by the alley in front and by a walled garden. There are no parapets and the tiles are weighed down with large stones. Otherwise the proportions are similar and the method of construction is the same. The addition with the stairs at the far end is much later. This house, in Valverde, could be anywhere in the islands, even in the Azores.

Quite often the patio itself was sunken, surrounded by walls retaining small fields or gardens. Although today it is often hard to discern because of the large number of recent structures, the use of sun-orientated natural slopes and sunken patios gave a pleasant and varied pattern to traditional groupings of dwellings following the contours of the land.

All that is left of a humble dwelling
in El Pinar, the door jamb and lintel,
so solid that over a very long time
even the stone walls have fallen away.

Inside there were two methods of flooring the dwelling. Fairly large stones may have been packed into place to make a rough cobbling. Alternatively, a mixture of earth and cow-dung may have been laid down and smoothed over. In the single storey dwellings, more comon in the poorer south, at about two metres above the floor a platform of pine trunks and planks formed a sort of loft where the people slept under the roof. The lower part, then, was used for everything else: storage, workshop, eating etc. Doors were invariably haar-hung, that is to say there were no hinges but the door pivoted in holes at the bottom and in the lintel at the top. The door jambs and lintel consisted of a frame of sturdy pieces of hardwood, usually Juniper, or pitch-pine, and were more important structurally than just doorframes. Internal dividing walls, if any, were flimsy partitions of split bamboo wattle or sacking. Stone dividing walls would have taken up too much space. On occasions a second cottage was added end to end giving the impression of a long construction of two rooms.

Every house had a rainwater cistern, in fact the family’s main supply of fresh water. The cistern usually had a diameter of 3.5 to 4 metres and a capacity of about 30 cubic metres, although we have a very much smaller one. It was dug straight down often through a stratum of hard basalt. The walls were made impermeable with lime and the roof crudely corbelled with large rocks. The surface of the cistern roof was finished with lime in the same way as the flat roofs and an opening was left to pull water with a bucket. Many traditional houses had in a wall facing the access to the dwelling a small niche containing wooden crosses in memory of departed kinsfolk.

Not exactly ancestor worship, but you may be forgiven
for thinking so.
Another very common feature is the bread oven, usually built quite separate from the dwelling – in any case I have never seen one with access from within the cottage as in other parts of Spain. The oven is usually a cube about 2 metres square, apparently built in exactly the same way as the cottage walls, with a flat roof and a small opening half way up and in the middle of one wall. The chamber is a perfect hemispherical void about 125cm in diameter in the centre of the construction and built with shaped blocks of conglomerate. The floor is of flat basalt flags. The fire was set in the chamber to one side and the fumes came out through a horizontal flue near the door.

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.