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Saxon villages: restoration is for the future

The work of restoring the Romanian Saxon Transylvanian villages, as undertaken by the Mihai Eminescu Trust is not romantic or nostalgic: it is about establishing sustainable, proud livelihoods
Jessica Douglas Home
5 September 2010

There are a dozen inaccurate - or half accurate - points made in the thoughtful article about the Saxon Transylvanian villages by Alina Hughes, James Koranyi and Tom Hughes. Since the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) – which I founded – is the leading conservation body working in those villages,  I would like to take up one in particular. The Article mentions:  “ … a tendency to portray Saxon villages as the embodiment of 8oo years of untouched tradition and architectural heritage…..   with the exception of the fortified churches and the village’ spinal layout… historical evidence suggests that very little remained of the medieval structure of these settlements”.

The street layouts are marked by long lines of narrow house facades and large gateways, and behind them narrow cobbled courtyards containing several  out- buildings. These courtyards end with massive barns. Research tells us that these barns were designed to form a united flank of protection on the village perimeters, as a first bulwark against marauders (the ultimate protection being the fortified church which when under full siege could contain villagers within the walls for weeks on end). When, during the 17th and 18th century, the early wooden village houses were changed from mud-based plasterwork to lime and masonry, this was largely as a protection against their burning easily, whether from torching or through accident. As the writers of the article correctly say, the village spinal layout (a few single roads leading up to the church) existed from the 15th and 16th centuries.  The MET has made a point of saving and restoring some of the few remaining early houses.

The article therefore pins its critique on the “constant renewal over centuries” of  facades, implying that our Saxon restoration work today rests on the mistaken assumption that the buildings and facades are medieval. On the contrary. As a Foundation we try to save threatened façades of whatever date. Sometimes, when repairing interiors or removing layers of plaster on 20th century facades, we find 16th and 17th -century inscriptions or drawings. These we protect with a special coating and leave with a border of several inches. Or else we photograph and record the symbol before covering with lime wash. After that we repair  - just as we have found it -  the façade’s stucco work, the windows, the  doors,  roof etc. We do not rebuild, as the article also implies, and would never try and re-impose an earlier model of architecture beneath the inscriptions. If the shutters and windows have been recently pulled out and replaced with Thermoplan plastic and foam, we offer a grant to the owners to help return to their original  windows, generally of the 18th or 19th century. The villagers often bitterly regret the loss of the old, having been duped by Thermoplan companies whose representatives come from Germany to tour the countryside persuading house-owners to change. These so-called draft free units neither fulfil their promise nor do they endure the winters satisfactorily.

The Trust’s Whole Village concept absolutely rules out imposing its philosophy onto villagers, an impression the reader might hold after reading the article.  On the contrary, we never “adopt” a village without the wholehearted consent of the occupants. Nor is the Trust run by outsiders. It is run by Romanians.

In starting the Whole Village Project, first we meet with local representatives, discuss their ideas, identify the houses suitable for restoration, assess the structure at risk, appoint a conservation expert and finally create an inventory of historic buildings. We offer an alternative approach to haphazard development or abandonment

To give the villagers a trade and pride in their surroundings is a special aim. Initially, for visual impact and to stimulate the communities’ pride in the settlements we started to train builders to repair the most prominent or historically interesting  buildings - sometimes privately owned, state -owned or simply abandoned. But the restoration of a single house or church can leave it out of context. And even if the full architectural cohesion and harmony of the medieval streetscapes were recreated, this would be a transient achievement unless the villagers themselves came to “own” the concept.

Over the years the Trust has given on site training to over a hundred and fifty local craftsmen and helped a wide variety of rural entrepreneurs  set up their own business and  improve their production and marketing. We are active today in 25 villages (and 4 towns), several of which, having heard of our work, sought our advice and set up on their own.

Viscri is the foremost example of a successful Whole Village Project. It has been estimated that over half of Viscri’s population has benefited from the Trust’s work. In this village we have undertaken 182 restorations, mended cattle troughs, built bridges, re-cobbled roads, planted trees and provided a school bus. We have built stables for horse-trekking and converted buildings into guesthouses. Most ambitious of all we are installing an ecological sanitation scheme which we hope will be a model for others to follow. This village now hosts over the year 10,000 visitors, from 17 different countries, most of whom stay in family-owned guesthouses  (accredited small  businesses the trust has helped set up).

In another village Malancrav, we acquired a 266-acre orchard. This generates an income and employment for the villagers from the production of the only indigenous organic apple juice in Romania. Close beside the orchard stands the romantic Apafi manor. We restored this beautiful house from a ruin with a team of Malancrav builders, many of whom gained the training and experience to set up with their own small business. From 2009, the Manor is run by a Malancrav couple who seven years previously, had emigrated to Germany but, homesick returned last year with their two young children.

It is simply wrong to portray Transylvanian conservationists as “romantic idealists”. All (except one) of the houses restored by the Mihai Eminescu Trust have indoor WCs, showers or baths, running water and electricity. We offer grants for internet connection. Mobiles are seen everywhere.  Please see our website and come and explore the beautiful region for yourselves and stay in some of the village guesthouses.

As for building materials: the article says  “ It is only from the late 18th century that …… a period of stability brought about the current village fabric ….. change and adaption were constant and fundamental features. …Materials, building methods, the effects of the extreme climate and fashion all contributed towards the changing appearance of these villages”.  Actually - with the exception of the move to masonry, the materials and building methods did not greatly  change over the centuries. It was under communism that the forced use of cement introduced a different and unsympathetic material.  With cement the problem is less aesthetic, than practical. We find that when inserted randomly for patching or building up the plinths, cement produces long-term damage: cracks, leaks and damp spread into the most important parts of the house - to the roofs, the front and side main walls, and the cellars. Using cement instead of lime mortar on a Saxon farmhouse does not allow it to breathe, and to move, both of which are critical in the extremes of the Romanian climate. Changes in decorative features have often taken place over the generations but to quite a small degree: each village has its own preferred and characteristic lime wash colour. Each, too, its special stucco-work of patterns and symbols. Within these confines householders did, of course,  forge new designs, but it is only in the last few decades that owners with less, or  no, consciousness of Saxon legacy have used entirely different building materials which can obscure entirely the harmony of a village and the historic details of a house. Buildings are now often adorned with neon blue tiles, bright reds, greens and yellows of acid plastic paint - not so much a change of fashion as the creation of a new type of village from a rootless culture.

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