The Role of social, cultural, economic and political issues and factors in raising awareness and promoting traditional, vernacular, architectural identity, and construction methods, techniques and associated crafts and skills, Lišov, Slovakia.

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By Robin Brittain.

The village of Lišov and the surrounding area is very deprived and poor. Traditionally, architecture and building approaches can be seen to reflect this, with vernacular types affording economical and affordable shelter – therefore accommodation.

The vernacular architecture and constructional approaches can be identified as having evolved with a relationship to, and reflecting this as well as together with other factors including availability of resources and as a result, primarily, with that being identified as,

  • ,

Caves, and earth-based materials. Timber is observed with use, for framework, such as roofing for buildings, panelling or cladding as well as general joinery, e.g. window and door framing.

[N. B. Vernacular architecture itself can be defined as that addressing human needs, culturally and socially with buildings designed in direct response to the local climate, geology, availabity of materials, and traditions and customs and built using local materials and inherited construction techniques, past down from generation to generation with sometimes or continual adaptation as a response to social and environmental issues and constraints].

Earth-based materials provides the most interest for this report with the dynamic and variety of ways in which it is used. It is generally readily available where other resources are scarce or not available, low-cost to source, and often associated as a poor person’s material, which maybe why it’s use may have been adopted here (although, particularly the latter statement being unclear).

Earth-based materials tend in the main to be used in conjunction with stonework, as mortar and finishes, some infill, such as within timber framing, i.e as a secondary material to stone to upper gables or with some limited observation, independently as a primary material with infill to timber frames and also to caves, as finishes, and generally as a flooring layer, e.g. over earth or stone. Earth-based materials are thus widespread and extensive with use.

Earth-based material are typically used,

  • In conjunction with stonework, as mortar and finishes,
  • Some infill, such as within timber framing, i.e as a secondary material to stone walling to upper gables,
  • With some limited observation, independently as a primary material, adjoining or incorporated with stonework, or with infill to timber frames – typically half-timber framing over stone plinths, including the typology;
  • infilled to a wattle frame, the earth mix material as daub, possibly, although not observed, formed earth mix material in a cob or mudwall fashion, in situ,

N. B. The extent of methodologies used are as what appears to be observed, that exactly employed is not fully clear, due to there being limited accessibility at the time of observation.

  • Typically, adjoining or incorporated within stonework, or within timber frames – typically half-timbered framing, adobe bricks (pre-cast and formed in open timber moulds and dried prior to use) and in building construction, laid and bonded with earth mix mortar, as full height walls over stone plinths, or more commonly observed as walls (usually gable ends) approximately divided vertically in two, with the lower section, stonework and the upper section adobe bricks,
  • As a mortar to stonework,
  • As a plaster and/or render.

The earth-based material mix, itself comprising soil or rather sub-soil with a proportion of clay, mixed (with variations, depending on need, and resource availability) typically with chaff (wheat husks), and/or short length chopped straw, sometimes powdered lime (e.g. hydrated), and/or horse manure mixed, all mixed together with water.

Buildings could be plastered and rendered with the same material mix, but typically not necessarily including straw as the lengths can protrude and be exposed (a risk of damage to the integrity of the resulting used mixed material through contact, weathering and erosion, and over time), and including powdered lime. It is common to see adobe brick use walls un-rendered, the bricks exposed. Why they are left exposed is unclear. They look unfinished, whether this is a cost related factor, or intentional. This highlights issues regarding detrimental issues such as with weathering, and erosion. And it’s not clear the degree and extent of adobe brick use. When exposed and un-rendered they are seen and use appears lesser compared to other earth-based material uses. However, there could be a bigger picture of use, where they could be rendered and covered and thus use not obvious.

Earth-based material walls can sometimes and often be observed render painted with limewash, affording protection.

The gable end tie beam of the roof timber framing is typically exposed with stone and earth-based material use buildings.

Traditionally roofing was straw thatch, being more specific to southern Slovakia. Occasionally Oak and Robinia (false acacia) shingles were used. As a comparison in the north of Slovakia, Pine shingles were used. And as a further comparison, Oak and Robinia shingles are lapped three times while Pine is lapped once, thus quicker and cheaper. Cost of repair and lack of skills with replacement with traditional materials has led to concrete interlocking tiles now being the norm, and the further loss of traditional material working skills. Flooring typically consisted the same or similar mix as for walls, of sub-soil with a proportion of clay, with fibres as required such as chaff and/or short length chopped straw, sometimes lime and sometimes horse manure, all mixed with water.

A top applied screed layer could have a sub-soil with clay content mixed with chaff and cow manure, all mixed with water, the manure affording a shiny appearance.

Horse manure adds strengthening fibres to the mix (through grasses and other fibrous material eaten and digested by horses), as well as an added enzyme, and in a usable mix, affords a degree of ‘stickiness’ and degree of ‘plasticity’ which affords workability with adhesion, a benefit with say rendering and plastering.

Man-made cave dwellings, excavated out of rock, and internally plastered and externally rendered where needed with sub-soil including clay content material-based render, with a mix as before, but typically not necessarily including straw, and including powdered lime. Sub-soil including clay content, based flooring would be applied, with a mix, as before. Externally, cave walls and earth-based material walls could, and can sometimes be observed render painted with limewash.

In both cases, for dwellings and caves, copper sulphate could be mixed with the lime to give a blue colour and painted on walls for insect resistance and charcoal mixed with the lime painted on walls, typically seen on building plinths to provide water and moisture resistance. Blood of an Ox could also be applied to wood to act as a preservative. Sometimes wood was burnt, charring it in a layer of carbon, providing resistance to mould, insects, water and even fire protection.

The utilisation of earthen materials – earth-based material mix use and excavated caves in the Lišov area is rural vernacular architecture and building methodology. And how cultural and social factors have influenced these building approaches is not clear, other than as identified before, they are low cost and this is an identified deprived and poor area, not just now but in the past.

Originally, the two main working trades and professionals were agricultural related including managing vineyards and producing wine and stone masonry. People are today finding it hard to earn through traditional arts, crafts and skills. Stonemasonry itself has died out as a skill or craft. There is not much worked, stone work left, e.g. dressed stone, for example to window and door heads and sills and there are some old gravestones remaining. The last stonemason died 30 years ago. An organised workshop last year (in 2017) was led by Stephen Pickering of the UK to teach stonemasonry due to it being a died out traditional way of working. Other workshops included other building skills such as lime plastering. This has advantages and disadvantages, it’s good that skills are taught, however, lost practices and techniques may not be just unique with practices and resulting finished work in a country but locally, and teaching provided from someone from another area or even country could be detrimental to building work, to be ‘in keeping with’ in terms of a vernacular perspective.

The area has and does suffer from earthquakes. This has had an effect on buildings and materials with movement and damage, with for example cracking, and where they are not repaired, e.g. with cost restraints and implications, they are at further risk with damage, i.e. weathering, erosion, water ingress etc…

The museum site in the village of Lišov, was developed by Martin Clark and renovated and restored with day to day running by Jakub Dvorsky and Adriana Patkova.

It is essentially a heritage museum comprising three buildings, each with a designated use-

  • A Museum, with rooms furnished and fitted out in a traditional period manner to show Slovakia rural life in the 1940’s, with items such as radios, cameras, to show them with use, traditionally in-situ along with mannequins and traditional costumes (each village having its own costume design). Many items and a stove have been gifted. Students come in the summer months to learn cross-stitch (cross-stitch patterns have additionally been painted by artists on a hipped, gable wall of one of the museum site buildings facing the road site entrance).

A loom for weaving carpets has also been donated and gets used for demonstrations and for use with practical hands-on workshops.

  • A Mask Gallery, with displayed masks from around the world collected by Martin Clark, together with a Shop.

A reconstructed Celtic Round House.

It is more than a living museum with an ethos to involve people and local artists in an attempt to keep traditions alive.

The site functions and operates not just as museum and shop but also as an educational centre and demonstration site affording the opportunity and even encourages or inspires the recognition, acknowledgement, and the preservation of local culture, and crafts and skills such as architecture and building related or textiles related for visitors, and through workshop and training programmes to engage and connect with local heritage to collaborate and share best practice, in an engaging, enjoyable, creative even fun way with those of different country, region, and with cultural backgrounds, and the relationship with social, economic and sustainable values with the local community.

People come from all over to visit and undertake programmes, including from Germany, the UK etc…

The first project was the restoration of the house. People had lived in it until 1995. It was identified as having a construction makeup along the lines as detailed before with other local building’s, being a mixture of stone, with earth comprising clay and chaff with short chopped straw. There is some sub-soil with a proportion of clay mixture, flooring (exact composition unknown) which has been restored with a linseed oil, polished, sealed finish and two of the rooms having later concrete floors, which are hopefully planned to be removed and re-instated with a sub-soil with a proportion of clay, mixture replacement with linseed oil finish to match the others in the building.

Like many buildings and notably to this area and area’s beyond, building elements are layered, for example earth mixes and limewash. An example is to one building being renovated for use as a Café, both internally and also externally to a wall facing the road with several alternating layers of earth mix and then limewash, and then at some points even with earth mix over limewash presenting bond issues. Damage to areas of the wall reveals the various layers.

The Celtic roundhouse is a modern-day replica, being based on, with nod and focus, the Celtic tribes who habited what is known as present day Slovakia (before the Slovaks) and who resisted the Romans.

It is constructed with a ground, stone protecting plinth, a ring of upright support timber poles supporting a conical roof covered with straw thatch, a weaved wattle wall applied with daub, comprising a mixture of sub-soil with clay content, short length chopped straw and horse manure, all mixed with water.

The roundhouse was built with visitor, hands-on workshop construction involvement and has afforded subsequent and future workshop involvement with remedial work, for example to repair and fill to cracking, and render over with daub and to experiment with various mixes either with or without short chopped straw and chaff fibres and understand and observe ease of application, drying times, strength etc… Remedial work is constant, offering a hands-on, practical experience. And although a modern structure, it is a physical as well as a practical heritage and cultural learning resource with traditional materials and their use.

Currently, as briefly mentioned before, one of the empty buildings to the lower part of the site, opposite the museum and shop is being restored and converted with adaptive re-use into to a Café. This has afforded a working ‘live building’ site, with hands-on visitor workshop involvement working on a traditional vernacular building, to-date, removing or peeling away constructional layers back to the original structure, offering a historical and archaeological viewpoint.

An extension is additionally planned for, and to the museum. It is understood that how this will be built – materials and their use has not been fully decided, and current thought is that it may need to be modern-day concrete block and/or fired clay bricks and tile based due to the cost of using the local vernacular, earth building approaches and lime etc… i.e. being labour intensive. It is hoped that the traditional approach with traditional materials will be employed to maintain heritage authenticity with employment and heritage vernacular continuity across the site, and that such work offers the potential for hands-on practical work for locals as well as visitors to have an awareness, understanding and learning of traditional vernacular building approaches, methods, techniques and skills and crafts with traditional materials.

Alternatively, a contemporary, architecture building which might be employing the use of conventional, ‘modern-day / man-made’ building materials would offer the opportunity to impart a unique site identity which might contrast and highlight the heritage values of the site.

There is no government grant money. More money goes into the cities, although they are trying to change the views towards recognising the countryside. Any grants awarded can include a potential pay back to government officials of say 20%.

The role of volunteers is important. There is generally a strong reliance and dependence on volunteers, wherever in the world, including within the historic and heritage sectors. Without time and effort given freely, the effectiveness of awareness, education, conservation and promotion of the historic and heritage sectors would decline significantly. Volunteers and the role they play are essential and vital to every aspect of the sector’s work, to discover more about aspects of an area or community such as local history and heritage, and to gain related learning, experience and to provide a sense of support to the area or community. Sometimes with changes and variation in demographics, volunteers may likely come from a narrow section of society, for example older, retired people, generally with time on their hands and without any financial constraints, barriers or burdens in undertaking activities.

In Lišov with the museum site it is difficult to get people to volunteer, as even if they may have time due to limited or no work, they are typically financially deprived and require or have a need for financial renumeration for any volunteer work undertaken.

The growth of ethnic diversity presents potential risk of loss of a local traditional heritage.

Vernacular building – once passed on from its rooted or indigenous generation to generation, is at risk of losing its cultural use and meaning, where there are no such generations to follow.

The village of Lišov includes in its make-up a proportion of Romani or Roma inhabitants. Romani are the second-largest ethnic minority in Slovakia and also the most disadvantaged group. The culture of each society is identified through its manifestations such as with language, traditions, art, and architecture, and skills and crafts. People in different countries and ethnicity try to follow their norms and maintain their values and differing cultural and social make-up, identity and views can leave them and descendants maintaining their values, aligned with mindset to that of their indigenous roots and disparate with that of a place to which they settle. Recognising, appreciative and supporting values and traditions of the place to where they inhabit becomes important for heritage to thrive. It’s also for them, a ‘sense of belonging’. Adriana Patkova and Jakub Dvorsky have previously engaged and involved Roma people in heritage discovery in Lišov, through crafts and skills learning.

In developing the museum site, initially people thought ‘they were crazy’ as Jacob puts it. Then visitors started coming and locals were able to benefit through the impact to themselves by the selling through the museum shop, of local craft items and foodstuffs which they have been able to make and produce, thus ethically and sustainably supporting and investing in the local community.

The museum site operates on the ‘four pillars of sustainability’ –

  • Environmental Responsibility and Protection
  • Economic Prosperity and Vitality
  • Social Justice and Equity
  • Cultural Vibrancy and Continuity

However, craft items and foodstuffs are also sourced from further away, including from countries such as Romania and Cyprus, which result in impacts such as environmental, for example, the distance travelled from the point of origin (where made) to destination (for selling), i.e. resulting carbon footprint, and also the effect of introducing that non-local which may benefit that area where made and produced but not necessarily the local heritage of the place being introduced to, in terms of risk culturally and socially with separating from tradition and the past.

This presents issues of scoring with the four pillars of sustainability in terms of defining the commitment to support a vibrant community, with thriving local economy, in relation to protecting and developing culture and social heritage with a healthy environment for the people in and around Lišov.

And then there is a wider benefit to the community in developing the museum site, beyond a shop, selling craft items and foodstuffs, through catering to study groups such as Erasmus programmes, for example with this Net 4 programme, the catering provided by a poor farming family, comprising mother and daughter, Danka and Danka and visitors to the village bar/pub.

The local government is starting to become more interested. There is evidence of visitor numbers. And they have documented a written description of it.

A benefit has been having a local representative in the renovation and restoration and day to day management of the site. Martin Clark is an Englishman who lives almost permanently outside the UK in Europe. And Adriana Patkova is Slovakian but originating elsewhere in the country, from Nemsova. However, Jakub Dvorsky is well known locally, having grown up in a nearby village. Jakub and Adriana are building a house in the village to live in. This ‘link and association’, has enabled the work at the site to receive support from locals. Having spent a week with Jacob, walking, and driving, and meeting locals in say the bar / pub in Lišov he is greeted by more or less every one.

As a comparison, the restoration of buildings and cave homes with museum, café and shop at Brhlovce village has been led and managed by Miro Sedlák who has come from elsewhere further away in Slovakia presenting a challenge with gaining acceptance and full support of ‘locals’.

This is often the case elsewhere, including that observed by the author in the UK, where such identified ‘outsiders or incomers’ can struggle to gain support by being seen as ‘interfering’, ‘taking over’, or’ busy bodies’, even where there are good intentions.

Locals can play an important role with such projects in Lišov and Brhlovce even if just for support.

In and around the vicinity of Lišov, there are 35 excavated cave houses, all of which are no longer inhabited and 300 excavated wine cellars, a significant number of which no longer in use.

They are undeveloped and largely unrecorded. There could have been even more. There’s no evidence or documentation as to what was actually there historically and now. This is a heritage practice that is being lost, not just the use of caves, but also how they were created. Instances exist where internal walls, ceilings and floors were plastered with sub-soil with a proportion of clay mixed with chaff with sometimes lime and sometimes short length chopped straw, all mixed with water. Specifics of mixes and any other ingredients is no fully clear. The techniques used in Lišov are more basic and primitive – they just used what they had and what was available, compared to elsewhere, e.g. Brhlovce.

One of the Lišov area caves is quite grand, with high vaulted ceilings.

This belonged to a fairly wealthy family who owned vineyards and produced wine commercially. When the communists came to power, they seized this cave, other assets including the land but then did nothing, so it fell into disrepair and the land not used. This social and cultural shift with change of ownership to the communists and subsequent falling into decay of buildings and loss of land-use was common practice.

Similarly, the archaeological background with age of the caves is unclear. As material was excavated it was piled at a distance outside the caves, hence some raised banking can be observed, and some material has been moved and mixed which makes dating difficult.

Caves were also extended and could even have buildings and structures built over the top of, or adjacent to them.

Dating them is difficult as there are no layers. Vegetation encroachment such as trees and roots over the top of them is a risk, even causing some roof collapse.

The caves at Brhlovce are within the village itself, prominent, and noticeable, a tangible asset, which has been positive with appreciation with restoration and then with visitors;

Whereas the caves in the Lišov area are to the periphery and outside the village and are more hidden and lost in terms of awareness of their existence and socially and culturally less valued. Jakub Dvorsky of the village museum site has previously led a hands-on research and restoration/re-construction workshop with one of the cave houses, thus raising awareness. The future for the caves in this area for restoration and use is difficult. Access to them is in the main not necessarily easy. Those once used for housing, could possibly be used for similar purpose or adaptive re-use, such as holiday let’s, but those used as wine cellars are much smaller with limited options for use, or rather re-use.

As a contrast to the local vernacular architecture, and construction approaches, nearby Dudince with its sulphur spa was developed as a spa town and built up from 1951, state-run by the communists, a socialist realism (although regular bathers started coming in the 19th century, and archaeological evidence indicates that earlier Roman soldiers bathed in local calcite swimming holes nearly 2,000 years ago).

The harsh concrete-esque and other modern-day / man-made material use, resulting buildings and structures that developed on an almost grid like town planning structure of paths and roads with green areas between in a park-like environment akin in ways to a university village type campus, as well as onwards into the 1960’s and 1970’s reflects and are a throw-back this communist legacy. And which has seen a transition socially, culturally and economically into tourism.

This is its own micro-vernacular environment setting, contrasting with villages, such as Lišov with a common traditional vernacular heritage thread or pattern.

Summary.

Vernacular architecture, construction methods, techniques and associated crafts and skills, is a lesson of the past for the future.

Architecture established and resulting, including from construction approaches, is a unique component of a locations’ culture just as much as its language, music, art, literature or food. Architecture is also the most visual of those cultural components; conveying a unique image. This is called “genius loci,” the “spirit of a place”. Every country, with regions and settlements has its own genius loci, its own uniqueness, and identity, which embodies itself, no more than through history and heritage having strength and depth of value, with encompassing related and reflected, culture, society, environment and economy of places, and thus, in terms of architecture with construction approaches… traditionally with the vernacular and with crafts and skills. And the village of Lišov and the surrounding area demonstrates this through its own genius loci, and the loss with architectural and constructional heritage can sever the ties people have with their past and culture.

Key take-away points.

To raise awareness, support and promote a traditional vernacular architecture, it’s building methods and techniques with associated skills and crafts, an approach might be;

  • To operate a ‘living’, working site, with existing buildings or structures for use including for the provision of visitor attractions (e.g. a museum, gallery etc…) and undertaking to those where possible, and as required, or separately of practical, ‘hands-on’ workshops and training, as a direct effective means of understanding and learning to engage and involve people of all socio backgrounds, ages, gender and skills and abilities, as visitors and participants with traditional as well as contemporary (an approach to enthuse with) crafts and skills.
  • Host cultural programmes for regional, international and ethnic diverse visitors and participants including creative programmes and workshops in an engaging, enjoyable (even, fun) environment to raise awareness and support traditional, heritage skills and crafts and develop them, even discover new heritage, all to be fit for changing needs, society and an ever-changing world.

And to,

  • Engage and involve to an organisation or group, stakeholders where a key partner or partners includes those who are local to it, as well as, other members or interested parties who are also local to it.
  • Engage and involve people locally including those who have settled from elsewhere and their descendants, e.g. ethnic groups.
  • Provide a gift shop, collaborating with local artisans to sell their created products as gifts, giving a shop an identity of ‘local-ness’, even with aspects of a traditional heritage theme, as well as café and/or restaurant for refreshments all with facilities and access to add a dynamic or ‘draw’ to a site for general visitors, and visitors and participants for workshops as well as facilities for events, including private meetings, private parties, weddings etc…
  • Provide signage as a way finder, and any other related marketing, advertising etc… and information and interpretation boards for general visitors, and visitors and participants for workshops.

Future Cooperation.

The Lišov museum site offers the inter-exchange of collaboration and sharing of knowledge, skills and crafts, transnationally of traditional, vernacular building approaches and methods and materials and their use, including architectural, historic, archaeological, cultural and social aspects, and in particular earthen materials and their use in construction with the forging of links with Earth Building UK and Ireland (with whom the author is an executive board member), and many potential opportunities, and that future programmes of visits and workshops could be arranged.

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