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 The patio has in some way been replaced by the alley in front and by a walled garden.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.


  1. Really informative of you that you highlighted the domestic architecture of this place, it actually looks really calm and natural but it’s not good to hear the sufferings this place is going through.

    1. Glad you liked it. Actually, though, the suffering is a thing of the past - just like anywhere else in, say, the nineteenth century - only the rich lived in anywhere near the kind of comfort we take for granted.