Ibiza History & Culture

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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Burning the Future

Part Two


Around a decade ago, during construction of the medical archives building next to C'an Misses (the hospital just outside of Ibiza town), it is said that three elderly rural peasants came to warn the architects and builders not to build on that site. As most of those involved in aspects of the work were forasters ('foreigners', which in rural island terminology can include just about anyone from Mallorca to Mongolia - or even, as in Formentera, to a local born off the island), this polite warning went unheeded and disparaging remarks were made about the educational levels of elderly islanders (well, in a polite newsletter like this one cannot really write that they were just told 'to piss off', can one?). But the three old peasants were correct and the modern architects and builders were wrong. Because the island has been becoming increasingly drier, none of the latter had really bothered much to look into the past water drainage history of that particular site. If they had, they would have discovered that they were building on a rainstorm flash-flood drainage area. Sure enough, heavy rains around 1995 damaged much of the site, which may explain why it may possibly be, it is said, rather difficult to obtain access to certain pre-1995 medical records.

Lack of interest in, and respect for, traditional Eivissenc/Ibicenco house styles and emplacements is not just restricted to certain (but not all) forester architects or builders but is seemingly shared by some of their more 'up market' local colleagues. Centuries of refinement of ancient and well-proven traditional house construction and emplacement methods on the island have given the isolated traditional casa pagès (a) a well-deserved reputation for rustic perfection and adaptation to the environment. With the arrival of tourism, 'modernisation' laughed at these ancient residences - many of which could actually be classed as 'works of art' - and almost literally destroyed the tradition overnight. Anyone visiting rural areas of the island today can see these ancient masterpieces dotted around the forested hills. At first view their emplacement - or positioning - may seem haphazard, but nothing could be further from the case. The traditional rural Eivissenc settlement pattern seems to have always been dispersion verging on isolation and, except for certain well-known exceptions, the concept of clumping together in 'villages' almost a 'foreign tradition' enforced particularly after the Catalan re-conquest in the 13th century (i.e., relatively recently as the anthropological time scale goes) and now also with the 'Tourism conquest'. An attempt from Vila (Ibiza town), Mallorca and the mainland in the 18th century to almost force those remaining rural peasants to abandon their isolated 'extended family kingdoms' to settle near churches/villages was a failure. These rural residences are masterpieces: constructed by wise peasants with an intimate knowledge of the terrain, of climate, and of the difficulties that periodic climatic problems can cause. Droughts and periodic intense storms with floods are all part of the deep rural memory passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation. Cultures based upon the passing down of traditions orally tend to have a longer historic memory (or at least one that is more strongly revered and felt) than most literate cultures. And as 'modernisation' proceeds worldwide we can begin to see the even further shortening of mankind's interest and attention spans. Anyone watching CNN news on their satellite television here on the island can glimpse the 'difficulties' (?) that a major US news organization has once it has realised (?) that attention spans of its home audience now seem within the 30-90 second range. Memory spans of rural populations traditionally encompass generations and hundreds of years of accumulated experience. Modernisation can shorten that very quickly: all it needs is one generation that does not pass on that culture and then - whoosh! - hundreds or thousands of years of experience go down the drain forever. This, unfortunately, is rather like what has happened in much of Eivissa/Ibiza within the last two generations or so. Many people seem to think that this is inevitable in the modern world: it should not be, and the loss of accumulated experience memory poses problems for us in the future.

As much as possible the isolated traditional casa pagès (a) (peasant house), positioned on traditionally held family land, was placed in such a way that es porxo (the entrance hall/room) and its porxet (sheltered porch entrance) faced south to catch the maximum sun. The (often-blank) backside of the house faced north as protection from the sometimes fierce traumontana winds and storms. Rural house positioning (but not necessarily that of certain older buildings in the areas of Vila and Portmany, San Antonio) took into account availability of water during summer and drought seasons and the sometimes torrential floods occurring during the winter - maximising access to water in the summer and minimising possible rain/flood damage in the winter. Many modern houses and urbanization's built on the island in the last 40 years or so often forget to take such important considerations into account. As the weather in this part of the world changes with global warming, certain modern builders and house owners will bitterly regret past mistakes. New houses built below areas liable to collapse; on low-lying land or near ancient flood run-off ditches ('torrentes') will take the brunt of the increased power of the future storms mentioned in last week's article. Modern houses built in 'scenic spots' on the coast but that may be potentially affected by the forecast rise in sea level, higher tides and storm surges, may not become the best-selling houses on the market. As local insurance companies begin to realise the implications, many of such newer constructions may have difficulty finding a company willing to insure them or, if so, at a price that is not astronomical. Traditionally oriented societies construct their habitations with climate fluctuations in mind. In Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific, usually affected by around half a dozen cyclones each year during the rainy season (from the beginning of October to the end of March or even April there), traditional architecture has developed over many centuries to minimise cyclone damage. There, house and ritual structures (all made of wood, leaf, vines and local fibre rope) are built with thick roofs plunging almost to the ground: roof-supporting walls are as short as possible. Such a structure can make it rather difficult for a cyclone to collapse the walls and tear off the roof. Over the last 150 years missionaries have emphasised the importance of having a sort of 'European' type house (albeit of local materials) with higher walls and a shorter, less sloping, roof. The latter kind of structure is just the kind that will disappear most quickly in a cyclone, whilst the low-lying traditional structures may be damaged but remain essentially intact. In February 1987 Cyclone 'Uma' hit central and southern Vanuatu with incredible force and 50 people sadly lost their lives. The previous January I had been in the village of Purao, on the island of Tongoa in central Vanuatu, to take part in rituals for the opening of a new traditional ceremonial house. This vast oval structure of wood and leaf thatch, over 30 metres long and 15 metres wide, was shaped rather like an up-turned canoe with the tight metre-thick thatched roof almost touching the ground. It had taken up to a hundred men nearly a year to build and involved first choosing massive curved trees that could be cut and cured for the roof supports. Chosen were trees that had a strong low projecting branch, which was cut off a metre or two from the trunk. The base of the cut tree was then dug deeply into the ground with the lower branches buried underground as well. A whole series of these large curved supports were thus dug into the ground and served as the 'ribs' of the structure which was therefore firmly 'hooked' into the ground by the branches. The thick thatched roof curved down almost to the ground, and even the entrance was so low one had to bend to enter. When the massive cyclone struck shortly afterwards, the population of the whole village (about 350 people), most of whom lived in less safer 'mission' style huts, sheltered inside under the direction of Chief Tarisaliu and his advisors. For those of you readers who may have been stuck in the middle of a massive cyclone, you will know that one does not necessarily just 'batten down the hatches' and sit it out. If one is in a house, one has to be aware of the changes in atmospheric pressure and wind direction of the phenomenon as wind pressure and direction can build up an effect that causes the structure to implode upon itself (this has happened to me before in the South Pacific) unless action is taken. It was interesting how the people from Purao sheltering inside the vast ceremonial hut dealt with the situation. Under orders from the chief and the elderly advisors, strong young men were placed inside at particular points along the base of the structure and others strapped themselves similarly along sections of the vast roof. As the cyclone swirled around the structure the chief and advisors shouted orders indicating that various men should periodically loosen or tighten some of the strong fibre cords along the roof and open or close ventilation flaps. Everyone from Purao survived safely, although only one house in the village was left standing. Hearing a detailed description of this later from one of the chief's elderly advisors, it made me think of the crew of a 19th century whaling ship struggling through an intense storm under orders from the captain shouting through a megaphone. Rather like a scene from the classic Walt Disney film 'Moby Dick'.

Modern architects on Ibiza - and elsewhere - will eventually be forced to take into account the gradual worsening of storm weather brought 'to a house near you' by global warming and climate change. Shoddy building techniques and emplacements will possibly eventually have to carry legal penalties. Some of the architects here on the island should rapidly de-learn and re-learn construction approaches to avoid pitfalls in the future and it would be extremely useful for them to delve into traditional local rural architecture, not to just be inspired by its beauty and seeming simplicity, but to learn the well-tried local approaches to trying to solve the problems of drought combined with periodic torrential rains and storms. Whether this will happen here in time or not one does know. I remember attending a public round table discussion in the Sala de Cultura in San Antonio on the future of the casa pagesa in the early 1990s.This had been organised as the closing session of a photographic exhibition on traditional Ibicenco rural houses put together by the Belgian architect Philippe Rotthier and his organisation T.E.H.P. (Taller d'Estudis del Hàbitat Pitius en Ibiza). Rotthier asked one of the invited guests, an Ibicenco mayor of one of the island's largest villages/towns (also an architect) how he saw the future of these increasingly rare architectural masterpieces. "S'ha accabat" ('It is finished'), replied the mayor/architect, to the shocked gasps of the audience: " It is part of the past and we must look to the future", he continued. Visibly shaking, Rotthier then asked the other major invited guest, the islander president of a local architect's association, who replied "We are not here to copy old house styles, our work is modernisation and urbanisation". The audience was visibly angry and it looked for one minute as if a fight might break out. Grabbing the microphone, Rotthier said grimly, " After viewing the exhibition and hearing the discussion this evening, one can see that in the old days Ibiza had architecture without architects and today has architects without architecture! "There was uproar. But such things happen, and it is not really, I suppose, Ibiza's fault that such a massive proportion of its modern buildings are an eyesore. Spain was the first country to develop mass tourism; there were no other countries upon which one could rely for advice. And on Ibiza, so isolated for so long, anything new was exciting, no matter how ugly it looks now. Building was done at break neck speed as the tourist's numbers kept increasing. Lack of aesthetic awareness of some of the local builders was sometimes put as the cause, sometimes 'just plain greed' is also mentioned. However, a lot of the blame can also be placed upon the foreign tour operators and some of the tourists themselves for not complaining enough about the quality of such a high percentage of the new buildings.

The effects of global warming and climate change will damage these relatively new, cheaply made, buildings a lot more than the ancient rural houses. It will force changes in building practice not just in Ibiza, but around the world. And it must be admitted that there are, luckily, some new buildings on the island that show taste, flare, respect for tradition and awareness that quality construction is not just a thing of the past. It would be interesting to be able to visit Ibiza in the year 2100 - by which time the full-blown effects of climate change outlined in last weeks article will have taken place- and to see what buildings existing today remain. By then, sea levels will possibly be a metre higher than today. What will the island's coastline be like then? It will still be a very special island, as it always has been throughout history. But drastic changes worldwide may mean that 'special islands' are no longer of importance. Problems of relocating the world's global warming refugees may have, by then, eclipsed most other topics of concern and there may be little leisure for tourism. Just bear this in mind: certain densely populated low-lying countries (not to mention the low islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean) will have their backs to the wall. In 1990 it was estimated that a rise in sea level of only 30cms would force 30 million people from Bangladesh out of their homes. This is just an example. Where will all these people go? They can't all come to Ibiza....

We will look into this in more depth later on. But next Wednesday my wife and I are off for a month's travelling. If I come across a computer on the way, I will submit articles when I can to our editor, Gary Hardy. Until then, I send you all best wishes for Europe's festive season... from the island where bright warm sunlight makes one squint the eyes in December whilst the rest of Europe freezes. Back here in mid-January. Molts anys i bons.

Kirk W Huffman